IRVINE — For the second straight day, the lone player on the winning team’s roster from the Grand Canyon State proved to be the difference in the Big West Conference baseball series between visiting Long Beach State and UC Irvine.
Saturday at Anteater Ballpark, a three-run home run by Dirtbags’ senior Matt Hibbert in the eighth inning that erased a 6-4 deficit and keyed the visitors’ 8-6 win, helped expose a UCI bullpen that has been the source of some peaks and valleys this season.
Hibbert, from Chandler, Ariz., was three for five with three runs batted in to help the Dirtbags (28-27, 11-12 in the Big West) even the series.
Friday, it was UCI junior Matt Summers, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who stole the show by pitching a no-hitter to collect a 2-0 triumph.
Three UCI relievers gave up runs Saturday, including senior closer Brian Hernandez, who surrendered the three-run homer to blow the save and absorb the loss.
In the last five losses for No. 24-ranked UCI (39-15, 16-7), the bullpen has surrendered the lead in the eighth (twice), the ninth (three times) and allowed the winning run to break a tie twice in the 10th inning.
Three times in those five losses, including Saturday, the UCI relievers’ inability to finish has cost sophomore left-hander Matt Whitehouse what would have been a victory. Summers and senior Crosby Slaught also lost would-be wins after some late leakage by the ‘Eaters’ pen.
“We have concern over this deal,” UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the bullpen’s failures, though relievers have helped UCI secure 37 of UCI’s wins this season (Summers has the only two complete games), including 12 saves from Hernandez. “I just thought [Saturday] was a poor pitching performance all the way around.”
Gillespie said Whitehouse, who allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits through five-plus innings, did not have his best stuff.
Freshman Phil Ferragamo, who was not charged with a run, gave up two hits while getting two outs in the sixth.
Freshman Jimmy Litchfield (two runs on three hits in 1 1/3 innings), Hernandez (two runs in one inning) and sophomore Kyle Hooper (one run on two hits in one inning) all helped UCI lose its chance to earn any portion of the conference title.
UCI entered Saturday one game behind Cal State Fullerton. But the Titans’ 6-0 win, combined with the UCI loss, gives Fullerton a two-game lead with one game left in the regular season.
Three Dirtbags had three hits to help the visitors amass 15 hits.
UCI, which had allowed just nine combined runs in its previous seven games, yielded the most runs it had allowed since a 10-4 loss at Cal State Fullerton on April 10.
UCI had four players produce two hits apiece to represent the majority of its 10-hit attack.
Junior first baseman Jordan Fox was two for three, drove in one run and stole two bases.
Hernandez and senior Drew Hillman were both two for five and Hernandez had one RBI.
Junior designated hitter Jordan Leyland was two for three and reached in all four plate appearances for UCI, which will finish second in the Big West and is expected to receive an at-large berth into the NCAA Regionals to mark the program’s sixth straight trip to the postseason.
Senior right fielder Sean Madigan and junior second baseman Tommy Reyes both drove in runs without the benefit of a hit. Reyes’ safety squeeze bunt with runners on second and third produced two runs in the fifth, allowing UCI to build a 5-2 cushion.
UCI left 11 runners on base and has stranded 20 in the series.
It was the first career home run for Hibbert, a 5-foot-10 leadoff man who began the day with eight extra-base hits and 10 RBIs in 137 career at-bats.
“It was a good pitch that was down,” Gillespie said of Hibbert’s blast that cleared the left-field fence by about five feet. “I just say hats off to [Hibbert]. That might have been out of here without the wind.”
The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m. NCAA Regional fields will be announced Monday at 9:30 a.m. on ESPN television.
Big West Conference
Long Beach State 8, UC Irvine 6
SCORE BY INNINGS
LBSU 100 011 131 – 8 15 2
UCI 030 020 100 – 6 10 2
Strufing, Johnson (5), Friedrichs (8), Pinder (9) and Murai, Marjama (9); Whitehouse, Ferragamo (6), Litchfield (6), Hernandez (8), Hooper (9) and Shaeffer. W – Johnson, 5-1. L – Hernandez, 3-2. Sv – Pinder (4). 2B – Duffy (LB), Leyland (UCI). 3B – Marjama (LB), Avila (LB). HR – Hibbert (LB).