IRVINE — Six days after undergoing unexpected root canal surgery, UC Irvine junior pitcher Andrew Morales made the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo hitters experience roughly the equivalent of a trip to the dentist.
Morales, recorded 10 of his first 12 outs with strikeouts and pitched seven shutout innings to help the host Anteaters earn an 11-1 victory over the Mustangs in the rubber game of a crucial Big West Conference baseball series on Sunday.
With the win, Morales, a transfer from Rio Hondo Community College in his first Division I season, improved to 10-0 and lowered his earned-run average to 1.79. He finished with a career-high 10 strikeouts, walked one and allowed four hits.
Morales did not allow a runner to reach third base and only two reached second. He retired the final eight he faced to end a streak of two straight starts without a decision.
The victory also propelled UCI (31-16, 13-8 in conference), ranked No. 23 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Assn. as well as USA Today/ESPN, into sole possession of third place with six conference games remaining.
UCI Coach Mike Gillespie has said a top-three finish will be required to earn an at-large berth into an NCAA Regional. And, with the help of Morales and a 16-hit outburst, UCI moved ahead of Cal Poly (33-16, 12-9), ranked No. 22 by Collegiate Baseball, in the Big West chase pack.
There was no chasing down UCI on Sunday, as all nine starters had at least one hit and one run batted in to put things out of reach early. UCI scored two in the first, four in the second, one in the third and four in the fourth to stake Morales to an uncommon windfall.
Sophomore first baseman Connor Spencer had hits in his first three at-bats and drove in two in the first and one in the second with a pair of doubles. He finished three for five with three RBIs and remains atop Big West hitters with a .385 average.
Sophomore third baseman Taylor Sparks was three for five with one RBI and one run scored. In 21 conference games, Sparks is batting .430 and leads all players with six home runs, 27 RBIs and 37 hits (14 of which are for extra bases) against Big West competition.
Junior center fielder Dominique Taylor was two for four with one RBI and two runs for UCI, which had six consecutive hits to fuel its four-run fourth.
"This was one of the good days," Gillespie said of the Anteaters' third win in its last seven games. "Morales was really good and every guy did something at the plate that counted. I thought Friday [a 7-1 win] was our best day [of the season], but this might be our best day plus."
UCI will likely need more good days ahead if it is to return to the postseason after missing out last season.
With eight games remaining, including nonconference home matchups against San Diego on Wednesday and USC on May 21, the Anteaters are hoping to pad a resume that may also benefit from outside help.
"It's very, very, very challenging," Gillespie said of the next two weeks, which include a three-game series at home against Long Beach State to end the regular season. "We're at 31 wins now and [Cal Poly] last year finished second in our conference with 39 wins and didn't get in [to a regional]. I don't know if there is any magic number [of wins], but we just have to win.
"And if we get to the end of the year and we've done well, I think we have some schools on our schedule that, when the dust clears, could be RPI boosters," Gillespie said. "Cal State Bakersfield looks like it is going to win the [Western Athletic Conference]. San Diego and BYU are not out of it [in the West Coast Conference] and Baylor is not out of it [in the Big 12 Conference]."
Morales, Gillespie said, will start on Saturday against Fullerton and Long Beach, as junior Matt Whitehouse shifts to the Sunday starting assignment for the first time since conference play began.
"Wherever I can help the team; wherever they put me," Morales said. "I had to set the tone early today. This was a big win for us and a big game for our team."
UC Santa Barbara (27-21, 12-9), which took two of three from UCI last week, is also in the hunt for a top-three finish. The Gauchos finish against conference bottom-dwellers Pacific and UC Davis the next two weeks.
Northridge is at Cal Poly and home against Cal State Fullerton in its final two conference series, while Cal Poly follows its home dates with the Matadors with a season-ending trip to Pacific.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 11, Cal Poly SLO 1
SCORE BY INNINGS
CPSLO 000 000 010 – 1 5 0
UCI 241 40 000 – 11 16 0
Granger, Holback (2), Zandora (4), Johnson (4), Chris (7), Dingilian (8) and Stewart, Hoo (7); Morales, Merten (8), Parmenter (9) and Shaeffer. W – Morales, 10-0. L – Granger, 5-4. 2B – Spencer (UCI) 2, Sparks (UCI), Palmer (UCI), Gottschling (UCI), Castro (UCI), Ellis (CPSLO), Schuknecht (CPSLO).