After apparently catching a monumental break when a would-be, go-ahead, two-run home run near the left-field foul pole was ruled foul, Anteaters closer Brian Hernandez was rocked for four earned runs in a five-run ninth-inning uprising by the Mustangs.
The result was a 7-3 win for Cal Poly (21-10, 10-7 in conference) that narrows what might have been the Anteaters' comfortable cushion in second place, behind Big West-leading Cal State Fullerton.
A win would have given UCI (30-12, 9-5), ranked No. 17 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers' Assn., a four-game lead in the loss column over the Mustangs. The top two teams from the Big West figure to earn berths into the NCAA regionals.
The loss also washed away what would have been sophomore left-hander Matt Whitehouse's third win in his last three starts. Whitehouse, who has emerged as a second ace behind Friday starter Matt Summers, arguably deserved nothing less than a victory. He struck out eight and walked none while allowing seven hits and two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings. He has now surrendered just three earned runs in his last four starts, during which he has worked 25 1/3 innings. That's a 1.07 earned-run average to lower his season ERA to 1.69.
Whitehouse had thrown 107 pitches when he was relieved by Hernandez after a two-out double in the eighth. Hernandez was greeted by an RBI single from Denver Chavez, but retired the side to preserve a 3-2 lead.
Hernandez, who entered with nine saves and three wins in as many decisions, walked the leadoff man in the ninth.
Cal Poly's J.J. Thompson launched the next pitch high into the hazy sky toward left and UCI left fielder Scott Gottschling ran out of room as he ventured to the foul pole, where the ball sailed out of the park.
Home play umpire Dan Ignosci continued walking up the third-base line, then put both hands up while looking at one base umpire, who was positioned near second base. Ignosci did not immediately gesture fair or foul and he appeared to be asking for help, as if he had lost sight of the would-be homer.
The foul call, later deemed erroneous by UCI third baseman Drew Hillman and catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, triggered a heated argument from Cal Poly Coach Larry Lee, a former Orange Coast College player who viewed the play from the third-base coaching box.
But Thompson proceeded to single through the left side and D.J. Gentile followed with an RBI single that tied the score. Matt Jensen, who was hitting .179 at that point, followed with RBI single to give the visitors the lead.
Two successful squeeze bunts and another RBI single finalized the scoring, handing Hernandez his first collegiate loss and ballooning his ERA from 1.64 coming in to 3.97.
"We wasted a really good pitching performance," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of Whitehouse's third straight gem of at least seven innings. "We had to be able to finish it and we didn't."
Gillespie said he did not have a definitive read on the would-be home run, but after hearing the assessment of the two UCI players with the best look, admitted that the Mustangs "got what they deserved [the eventual winning rally]."
Junior Jordan Leyland went two for three, while junior shortstop Tommy Reyes was two for four with an RBI. Hernandez, a senior who starts at third base, was two for four to help lead UCI's 10-hit attack.
Cal Poly had been 0-14 when trailing after eight this season.
It was only the second loss in 20 home games this season for UCI, which had a four-game win streak halted.
The series concludes Sunday at 2 p.m. The finale will be televised live on ESPNU.
Junior Crosby Slaught (4-1) is scheduled to start for the Anteaters.
Big West Conference
Cal Poly 7, UC Irvine 3
SCORE BY INNINGS
CP 000 000 115 – 7 13 0
UCI 000 300 000 – 3 10 -0
Fischback, Reed (9) and Elliot, Hoo (9); Whitehouse, Hernandez (8), Litchfield (9) and Shaeffer. W – Fischback, 5-2. L – Hernandez, 3-1. 2B – Crocker (CP), Miller (CP), Reyes (UCI).