FULLERTON — Two pitches after he nearly swung out of his shoes, Cal State Fullerton senior Carlos Lopez left visiting UC Irvine on the field, stunned in their tracks.
Lopez launched a 1-1 split-finger fastball off a banner about 10 feet over the top of the right-field fence to lift the host Titans to a 3-2 walk-off victory over the Anteaters in front of 2,399 on Saturday at Goodwin Field.
The winning homer, which Lopez said was pre-ordered by Titans head man Rick Vanderhook, clinched the Big West Conference series victory for the Titans, who also wrapped up at least a share of the conference regular-season crown.
The win also may have all but ruined UCI's chances of making the 64-team NCAA Regional field for the seventh time in eight seasons.
"Coach Vanderhook told me to try to hit a home run," said Lopez, who singled in the game-winning run to cap a 14-pitch at-bat in Friday's 5-2 come-from-behind triumph. "The first pitch was off-speed and I swung as hard as I could. I just missed it. I'm so old, I think I might have pulled something. He threw me a ball and then the off-speed again and I tried to hit it."
It was the 11th hit of the game, with at least one in every inning for the Titans (44-8, 19-4 in conference), ranked No. 4 in the nation by Baseball America. It was also the fourth straight win over UCI for the Titans, who have now won six of the last seven between the two Orange County rivals.
It was a win Fullerton appeared to have sealed and delivered when junior closer Michael Lorenzen used two pitches to get two outs in the ninth to put himself on the verge of his 18th save.
But UCI, which had five hits in eight scoreless innings, all but one out of which was delivered by freshman star Justin Garza, somehow managed to tie the score.
Jerry McClanahan reached second when his single to right-center was misplayed for an error and Jeff Stephens followed with a single to left to put runners on the corners. Kris Paulino singled to right to drive in UCI's first run and Grant Palmer came up with runners at the corners.
Palmer struck out on a check swing, but the ball skipped past catcher Chad Wallach for a wild pitch that allowed Palmer to reach first as the tying run scored. Lorenzen retired Chris Rabago to put himself in position for his third win in as many decisions, as the UCI crowd reveled in something to celebrate for the first time all night.
"It was exciting," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the comeback, which brought closer Race Parmenter in to pitch the bottom of the ninth.
"When they tied it, I was like: 'Oh, I guess we're going to have to leave them on the field,'" said Lopez who has three homers this season.
"I just said, 'Try to hit a home run,'" Vanderhook said of his instructions to Lopez, who will turn 24 in two months. "Occasionally I'll tell a guy to go up and do it. It gets [the player] loose and they quit being careful. Sometimes you just let it go. He let it go and ran into one."
UCI's rally erased what would have been Garza's 12th win of the season without a loss.
UCI starter Matt Whitehouse earned praise from both coaches. He allowed 10 hits and two runs in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out five and walked three.
McClanahan went two for three to pace UCI's eight-hit attack.
Rabago spearheaded a strong defensive night for the visitors (31-19, 13-10), who fall into a tie for fourth place with UCSB, one game behind Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The sophomore shortstop had three putouts and seven assists and was involved in three double plays.
"I really don't know that we could have played it any better," Gillespie said. "It was everything really good except winning."
The series finale is Sunday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
Cal State Fullerton 3, UC Irvine 2
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 000 000 002 – 2 8 1
CSUF 002 000 001 – 3 11 1
Whitehouse, Brock (8), Parmenter (9) and Shaeffer; Garza. Peitzmeier (8), Lorenzen (9) and Wallach. W – Lorenzen, 3-0. L – Parmenter, 2-4. 2B – Velasquez (CSUF), Chapman (CSUF), Lorenzen (CSUF). HR – Lopez (CSUF).Copyright © 2015, CT Now