RIVERSIDE — On a night with precious little margin for error, a UC Irvine baseball team that has relied on its defense and decision making all season was just barely better than host UC Riverside on Saturday.
Attention to defensive detail, which has allowed UCI to enter the week ranked seventh in the nation in fielding percentage (.979), helped the Anteaters edge the Highlanders, 3-2, to clinch their sixth Big West Conference series victory in seven opportunities this season.
UCI (37-13, 15-5 in conference and ranked No, 16 in two national polls) has now won seven straight and 11 of its last 12. The Anteaters clinched no worse than a share of second place in the Big West and are 1 ½ games behind first-place Cal State Fullerton.
Junior starting pitcher Crosby Slaught allowed two runs in seven innings to earn his sixth win in seven decisions this season, and senior Brian Hernandez got the final out for his 11th save after freshman Jimmy Litchfield tossed 1 2/3 innings of shutout relief.
It took three UCI pitchers to outduel UCR junior Eddie Orozco, who threw a complete game and struck out 11, but fell to 4-2.
After lashing 16 singles among its 18 hits in the series-opening 12-0 win Friday, UCI had four doubles among its nine hits Saturday. Two of those doubles drove in runs, including the game-winning RBI by D.J. Crumlich with one out in the eighth.
Crumlich's drive into the gap in right-center field plated junior second baseman Tommy Reyes, who opened the eighth with a single.
Crumlich, playing with a strained left shoulder that makes some swings painful, inflicted some pain on an Orozco slider, a pitch that had struck Crumlich out twice earlier.
Junior center fielder Christian Ramirez, who made a game-saving diving catch on a sinking liner to center to end the Riverside eighth, doubled in senior Drew Hillman, who had doubled to open the UCI second to give UCI a 1-0 lead, UCR shortstop Trevor Hairgrove hooked a two-run home run just inside the left-field foul pole to put the hosts (26-22, 8-12) on top in the third.
But Hillman scored the equalizer on a sacrifice fly by Ramirez in the fourth.
Riverside, which turned four double plays, three of which ended UCI innings, had runners at second and third with one out in the fifth inning.
But Bart Steponovich was victimized by the hidden ball trick when third baseman Hernandez tagged him after he led off the bag following an infield single and an error by Phil Holinsworth. Holinsworth was then thrown out trying to steal third to end the inning by UCI junior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, who nailed three would-be Highlander base-stealers on the night.
Slaught allowed six hits, walked one and struck out six.
Ramirez was two for three with two RBIs, while Hillman and Crumlich added two hits apiece.
Senior right fielder Sean Madigan went hitless in four at-bats and saw his streak of reaching base in 34 straight games come to an end.
"I thought it was a really good baseball game," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said.
"[Orozco] was really good, but I thought all three of ours were also really good."
Crumlich said pitching and defense were key.
"Defense has been one of our building blocks this year," Crumlich said. "And Slaught came out and dealt today."
UCI left only two runners on base and UCR left three.
The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 3, UC Riverside 2
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 010 100 010 – 3 9 1
UCR 002 000 000 – 2 8 0
Slaught, Litchfield (8), Hernandez (9) and Shaeffer; Orozco and Steponovich. W – Slaught, 7-1. L – Orozco, 4-2. Sv – Hernandez (11). 2B – Hillman (UCI), Ramirez (UCI). Hairgrove (UCR), Crumlich (UCI), Hernandez (UCI). HR – Hairgrove (UCR).