IRVINE — The old Danny Bibona was plenty good enough, but the new-and-improved version of the UC Irvine All-American starting pitcher was better still Friday night.
Bibona, the Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year and an All-American as a junior, unveiled a new cut fastball in the Anteaters’ 5-1 nonconference season-opening win over Loyola Marymount in front of 864 at Anteater Ballpark.
And the result was seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts, and a victory in his eighth consecutive start. It was also the 12th straight decision the left-hander has won.
Coach Mike Gillespie said Bibona’s new pitch came in handy against the Lions.
“I think it factored in a lot,” Gillespie said. “I think the strikeout pitches that were breaking balls were typically the cutter. It had to be half a dozen of them, so it was important.”
Bibona said it was fun to unleash his new discovery in a game situation.
“It was exciting,” said Bibona, who was 12-1 last year and is now 22-4 the last three seasons. “It was fun to get out there and throw a new pitch a little bit. Being able to throw four different pitches at any time, it’s just another thing [hitters] have to think about in the back of their mind. It helps me with the way I pitch. I’m excited about it. It was working well today.”
Also working well was a defense that made only one miscue — a booted routine ground ball on the would-be last out that erased the shutout — as well as the bat of sophomore outfielder Jordan Fox.
Fox went three for four to pace a nine-hit attack that also included a two-run double by senior first baseman Jeff Cusick in a five-run sixth inning.
Senior catcher Francis Larson walked with the bases loaded to open the scoring off of talented LMU starter Martin Viramontes, who matched Bibona through five-plus innings.
“[Miramontes] was good,” Gillespie said of the 6-foot-5, 225-pound professional prospect. “He pitched well, in addition to being talented. I don’t know if we’re going to see guys a lot better than him this season.”
Miramontes, who was a medical redshirt last season, appeared to tire in the sixth, despite having a low pitch count.
Casey Stevenson and Drew Hillman singled with one out to start the UCI rally and Ronnie Shaeffer walked to load the bases for Larson.
“I thought Larson had the key at-bat of the inning,” Gillespie said.
Cusick’s opposite-field double into the right-field corner, on an 0-2 pitch, gave the ’Eaters a 3-0 cushion and chased Miramontes after 89 pitches.
Cusick has now reached base in 16 straight games, dating back to last season.
Fox followed with an RBI double off the glove of a diving shortstop and Tommy Reyes drove in a run with a groundout.
Cusick said the new Bibona looked a lot like the old Bibona.
“I thought Danny was just Danny,” said Cusick, who has played with Bibona since the two entered Santa Margarita High together eight years ago. “I’ve seen him pitch a ton of times and he stayed in character and threw all his pitches for strikes. And when he does that, he’s going to be very tough to settle in against as a hitter.
“He has developed [the cutter] and he threw it to me quite a bit in the fall,” Cusick said. “It’s just another great addition to a three-pitch mix.”
UCI redshirt freshman Andy Lines earned the save by striking out the only hitter he faced.
Sophomore Nick Hoover and freshman Kyle Hooper did not yield an earned run in 1 2/3 combined relief innings to allow Gillespie to save Sunday starter and now part-time starter Eric Pettis for Sunday.
Hoover allowed one hit and issued the only walk surrendered by UCI pitchers in the eighth.
Hooper, who along with Lines made his collegiate debut, gave up two hits after starting the ninth.
Bibona struck out the first four LMU hitters and has now fanned the first hitter he has faced all four seasons at UCI.
UC Irvine 5, Loyola Marymount 1
SCORE BY INNINGS
Viramontes, McClintick (6), Meyers (8) and Koch; Bibona, Hoover (8), Hooper (9), Lines (9) and Larson. W – Bibona, 1-0. L – Viramontes, 0-1. Sv – Lines (1). 2B – Cusick (UCI), Fox (UCI), Barmasse (LMU), Koch (LMU) 2.