RIVERSIDE — UC Irvine ventured to UC Riverside for the Big West Conference baseball opener on Friday and a telethon broke out. How else to describe the spirit of giving that pervaded in the Highlanders' 4-3 victory at the Riverside Sports Complex?
Both teams donated costly mistakes to the cause, with UC Riverside getting a jump on things, only to benefit in kind.
Ultimately, it was two miscues by the Anteaters — one of which manifested itself in an error that marred the box score for the team that entered the game leading the nation in fielding percentage — that spelled doom for UCI. It was the 'Eaters' first loss in a conference opener since 2006.
"I'm just sick about it," said UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, whose team, ranked No. 21 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Assn., fell to 16-6 by absorbing its first one-run loss of the season.
The obvious Irvine misplay occurred in the seventh inning, when Riverside chased starter Andrew Thurman with a single and walk to begin the rally. Mitch Merten came on in relief and bolted off the mound to field a would-be sacrifice bunt. Merten spun and threw to third to get the lead runner.
Merten then induced what appeared to be an inning-ending double-play grounder to shortstop Chris Rabago. Rabago hesitated slightly on his feed to second baseman Grant Palmer, but Gillespie said Palmer had plenty of time to complete the routine double play. Palmer, however, threw in the dirt to first and the ball skipped past Connor Spencer for a throwing error. Cody Hough scored from second on the play to break a 3-3 tie and propel the Highlanders (11-9) to the unexpected triumph.
The less-obvious UCI mistake came in the Riverside fourth inning, allowing Kyle Boudreau to belt a game-tying two-run homer . Gillespie said a fastball was the pitch called from the UCI dugout, but the coaches immediately reconsidered. The UCI staff used a verbal timeout sign to instruct the pitcher to step off the rubber, which would have allowed another sequence of signs to be delivered. But neither Thurman, nor catcher Ronnie Shaeffer heard the verbal cue, and the fastball was promptly deposited over the right-field fence. It was the first homer allowed all season by Thurman.
"I thought it was loud enough, but it wasn't heard," Gillespie said of the timeout call. "So that's [the coaches'] fault. We didn't want to throw a fastball and a fastball got called. We were trying to change it to a different pitch."
Thurman allowed nine hits and three earned runs in six-plus innings. He struck out six and walked three.
Thurman appeared primed to earn his third win in his last four starts, thanks largely to some generosity from the hosts.
Riverside committed three errors to allow UCI to score unearned runs in the first, third and fourth innings. Further, the Highlanders ran into two outs on the base paths, due to missed signs, Coach Doug Smith said later. Both runners would have scored on subsequent base hits.
"How badly can we play the first half of that game?" Smith said. "And against a club like UCI, when you make those kind of mistakes, you are going to lose the vast majority of the time. So we're very, very fortunate to get out of that one with a win."
Cooper, who entered the game leading the conference with a .416 batting average, went two for four with a run batted in.
Dominique Taylor was also two for four with an RBI for the Anteaters, for whom freshman Jon Herkins was two for three with a run scored.
UCR closer Trevor Frank posted his fourth save to secure starter Dylan Stuart's third win in five decisions.
The two teams resume the three-game series on Friday at 6 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Riverside 4, UC Irvine 3
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 101 100 000 – 3 10 1
UCR 100 200 10x – 4 9 3
Thurman, Merten (7) and Shaeffer; Stuart, Frank (8) and Steponovich. W – Stuart, 3-2. L – Thurman, 2-3. Sv – Frank (4). 3B – Andriese (UCR). HR – Boudreau (UCR).