COSTA MESA — As the outs dwindled in Orange Coast College's 7-5 Orange Empire Conference baseball victory over visiting Santa Ana on Thursday, a conversation in the press box began about who might be the Pirates' hero of the day.
After a few moments, it was agreed that there was no singular standout, but rather a confluence of contribution from up and down the lineup, as well as on the mound.
Sophomore starting pitcher Keegan Yuhl worked seven solid innings to earn his state-leading eighth win in eight decisions. But he allowed four runs, all earned, on nine hits and was hardly his usual dominant self.
Freshman right fielder Bijan Rademacher and freshman second baseman Justin Broussard both had two hits and one run batted in, their final two RBIs proving to be the difference in the seventh inning. Both doubled and Broussard scored one run.
But four other Pirates had one hit, one run and one RBI apiece, while two more scored runs. And the hosts (24-2-1, 11-1 in conference), ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 1 in one national poll, also combined to play errorless defense, including a game-ending double play.
Sophomore Ryan Evans allowed just one hit in 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to collect his team-leading third save.
But as it is becoming increasingly clear, the totality of OCC's excellence this season has most to do with, well, its totality.
The Pirates extended their winning streak to a season-best eight games. They began the season with six straight wins, before playing to a 14-inning tie. They then reeled off seven straight wins before experiencing their first loss. The only other loss, at home to Fullerton on March 8, is one of few examples of fallibility as Coach John Altobelli continues to approach some rarefied air in the 64-year history of the program.
OCC's current winning percentage of .907 would break the school single-season record of .862, accomplished by the 1957 squad that finished 25-4. That 1957 team won the last of five straight conference championships.
And while Altobelli, in his 20th season at the helm, has posted five 30-win seasons, including a school-best 37 wins by the 2009 state champions, both of his previous conference crowns (2009 and 2005) have been shared.
With nine conference games remaining, OCC holds a four-game lead over both Santa Ana and Riverside. And four of the remaining nine games will be against Irvine Valley and Fullerton, both of which are one game ahead of last-place Saddleback.
Still, Altobelli is preaching adherence to the daily plan, rather than any historic perspective. It's a plan that continues to serve his team well.
"This is a special group and, hopefully, we can keep working hard and focus one day at a time and not on things that will be determined down the line," Altobelli said. "It's a hard working group and we are enjoying the journey."
Experience continues to bolster the opinion that such short-term focus can help avoid the sluggish finish turned in by last year's squad. Last season, OCC opened 24-4, only to lose six of its final 14 games to wind up 32-10 after being eliminated in the Southern California Super Regional playoffs by Santa Ana.
There are seven sophomores, as well as one freshman starter who is among the Pirates' three Division I bounce-backs, among their starting position players. And OCC's top two mound starters began their collegiate careers at Division I schools.
"You win with sophomores and we have a couple redshirt guys who have been at four-year schools," Altobelli said.
OCC took a 2-0 lead in the third inning Thursday, then answered Santa Ana's two-run fifth with a three-run fifth that included RBI singles by sophomore shortstop Joel Licon and sophomore first baseman Bryan Garza.
OCC upped the lead to 7-2 in the seventh.
The Dons (18-7, 7-5), ranked No. 4 in Southern California, scored three in the eighth on four hits, but were stifled by Evans, who retired both hitters he faced in the inning.
OCC will try to complete a regular-season sweep of Santa Ana, which has won outright or shared the last five conference titles, Friday at 2 p.m. on the Dons' diamond.
Orange Empire Conference
Orange Coast 7, Santa Ana 5
SCORE BY INNINGS
SAC 000 020 030 – 5 12 2
OCC 002 030 20x – 7 9 0
Clough, Diaz (5), Hawley (7) and Armijo, Harrison (8); Yuhl, Salcido (8), R. Evans (8) and Woodward, Hugaert (9). W – Yuhl, 8-0. L – Clough, 4-2. Sv – R. Evans (3). 2B – Broussard (OCC), Rademacher (OCC), Carlson (OCC), Jones (SA). 3B – Powell (OCC).