IRVINE — One day after learning it would be without its ace for at least a week, the UC Irvine pitching staff found more than one candidate willing to step forward and pick up the slack.
And, offensively, it was the guy who has stood out all year that refused to take a step backward to also help the Anteaters post a significant 2-1 nonconference win over No. 11-ranked UCLA Tuesday night at Anteater Ballpark.
Senior All-American starter Danny Bibona, on pace to repeat as Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year, said he will miss his usual Friday night start against UC Santa Barbara due to inflamed rib muscles.
Sophomore reliever Nick Hoover held the Bruins (34-11) scoreless for 4 2/3 innings to earn the win, while freshman Evan Brock threw three perfect innings to earn his first save.
Senior first baseman Jeff Cusick doubled in two runs in the fifth inning to provide the difference and claim hero status once again. Cusick upped his team-leading total to 52 runs batted in and now has nine RBIs in his last two games.
And while UCI Coach Mike Gillespie continues to marvel at the year Cusick is having (hitting .397 with nearly a .500 on-base average and taking 141 career RBIs, which ranks No. 3 in UCI annals, into the final 10 regular-season games), he said pitching deserved the headlines Tuesday.
“Hoover [whose outing was the longest of his season] really picked us up and so did Brock [dubbed to start Saturday with Saturday starter Christian Bergman moving up to Friday],” Gillespie said. “They were really the story.”
“[Offensively] we get a flair base hit and a walk and then another big at-bat by Cusick. I don’t know that everybody really does understand what kind of a special year [Cusick] has already had and is having. We don’t have to talk about how long I’ve done this and I’ve had very few guys who have had years like this. Their names are people we’d know, like the Geoff Jenkins of the world.”
The win, in its last regular-season opportunity against a nationally ranked opponent, might create some postseason cachet for the ’Eaters (30-16), who have fallen out of the Baseball American top 25 and are in second place in the Big West.
Gillespie said the importance of the game prompted him to stay with Brock in the late going.
“Yeah it is not ordinary,” Gillespie said of the victory. “[The Bruins] are good and this is important for a lot of reasons. This RPI deal matters. Clearly, for us, it’s about what we do in the conference, but this is a difference-maker.”
“It was a huge win for our team and hopefully we can build off of it,” Cusick said. “Those are the kind of games that, playing ’Eater baseball, you win, with key pitching down the stretch and a couple of key plays here and there.”
Hoover allowed two hits, struck out three and walked two. He now has 22 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings this season.
Brock fanned the final four he faced and did not allow a ball to be hit out of the infield.
“Everyone knows that Hoover has good stuff,” Cusick said. “It’s just a matter of him really going for it, being aggressive with his pitches and not feeling for it.
“And it’s the same with Brock. He has lights-out stuff, a three-pitch mix. I saw in his eyes a couple of times tonight that he wanted to be in that situation, he was not praying for outs out there. It was good to see that out of a young guy.”
Bibona said he saw a doctor Monday and rest was recommended. He said he hoped he would be back on the mound May 21 against UC Riverside.
UC Irvine 2, UCLA 1
SCORE BY INNINGS
Claypool, Drummond (7), Goeddel (7) and Brown; Lines, Hoover (2), Brock (7) and Larson. W – Hoover, 2-0. L – Claypool, 7-2. Sv – Brock (1). 2B – Cusick (UCI).