IRVINE — The offense is producing in bunches and the pitching is more than holding its own. But with one game left in the regular season, the UC Irvine baseball program may be on the verge of an eight-month break.
Despite an 8-4 win that clinched the three-game Big West Conference series victory against visiting Long Beach State on Friday, the Anteaters (33-21, 15-11 in conference) can finish no better than tied for third in the conference. And even in that scenario, they would lose the tiebreaker to UC Santa Barbara.
UCI Coach Mike Gillespie has said it would take a top-three finish to earn an at-large bid into the 64-team NCAA Regional field. But now, the top three would be before tiebreakers that might also include Cal State Northridge.
“We have to think there is more to play for [in Saturday’s series finale at 1 p.m.] than just pride,” Gillespie said. “We’ll just play and see what happens.”
UCSB’s win over UC Davis on Friday made the Gauchos 16-10 in conference, one game behind Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and one game ahead of UCI and Northridge, which has lost two straight to first-place Cal State Fullerton.
UCI won two of three against Northridge, which, like UCI, lost two of three to UCSB in conference play. So, if there is a three-way tie, UCSB would be considered the No. 3 team, UCI No. 4 and Northridge No. 5. UCI could still be selected for postseason play ahead of UCSB. But the Gauchos entered this week with a Ratings Percentage Index of 59, seven spots ahead of UCI. Northridge’s RPI is 89.
“We would not be liking life, but maybe our guy on the [NCAA baseball selection committee, Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell, who is the vice chair] will fight hard to win the battle,” Gillespie said.
The battle for a third Big West postseason berth, behind Fullerton and Cal Poly, might be fought on behalf of UCSB.
At any rate, the ‘Eaters are handling their own business against the Dirtbags (28-27, 14-12), who entered the series on a five-game winning streak.
UCI, which had lost five straight before a 10-4 triumph on Friday, built a 7-0 lead through six innings on Friday in support of junior starting pitcher Matt Whitehouse.
Whitehouse allowed four runs, three earned, before exiting with one out in the seventh. He allowed eight hits, struck out five and did not issue a walk to improve to 5-6.
Sophomore third baseman Taylor Sparks got things going for the hosts, launching a towering home run over the trees beyond the left-field fence to lead off the second inning. It was the 10th homer of the season for Sparks, who with 13 in his career is more than halfway to the school career record of 25 set by Francis Larson. Sparks needs one more run batted in to reach 50 this season.
For the second straight night, sophomore shortstop Chris Rabago had three hits. His windfall included a triple, three runs batted in, and a stolen base. He is six for nine with five RBIs and three extra-base hits against Long Beach State pitching this season.
Dominique Taylor, Sparks and Ronnie Shaeffer had two hits apiece, while both Jeff Stephens and Scott Gottschling each had two RBIs and one hit for the winners.
UCI now has 28 hits and 18 runs against the Dirtbags.
Jimmy Litchfield pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief for UCI, which will start junior right-hander Andrew Morales, who is 10-0, on Saturday.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 8, Long Beach State 4
SCORE BY INNINGS
LBSU 000 000 400 – 4 11 0
UCI 031 012 10x – 8 12 1
Stassi, Provencher (7), Magallon (8) and Hutting; Whitehouse, Litchfield (7) and Shaeffer. W – Whitehouse, 5-6. L – Stassi, 4-4. 2B – McNeil (LBSU), Taylor (UCI), Palmer (UCI), Rabago (UCI), Shaeffer (UCI). 3B – Rabago (UCI). HR – Sparks (UCI), Rivera (LBSU).