Spend more than four decades coaching college baseball and you are bound to pick up a little psychology. But even the breadth of experience accrued by 72-year-old UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie wasn’t enough to salve the mental wounds that lingered after an 8-7 nonconference loss in 13 innings to visiting Fresno State on Saturday.
The Bulldogs, who scored in the 10th to snap a scoreless tie and come away with a 2-0 season-opening win on Friday, took the lead four times on Saturday, including once in the 12th and once in the fateful 13th.
The loss dropped UCI to 0-2 for the first time in 12 seasons, since the 2002 squad, coming off a nine-season hiatus, opened 0-3.
“It’s immense,” Gillespie said of the back-to-back, extra-inning losses. “The kids are so down. I think there’s a big difference between being disappointed and discouraged, but they are both.”
In addition to the two gut-wrenching defeats, the biggest concern lies with the area the Anteaters felt best about coming into the season: their one-two offensive punch of juniors Taylor Sparks and Connor Spencer.
Sparks, the Big West Conference Co-Player of the Year last season when he earned second-team All-American honors, hit 10 homers, drove in 50 runs and led the conference with a .581 slugging percentage, went zero for five Saturday with two run-scoring flyouts for his first two RBIs of the season. He is now hitless in eight official at-bats with four strikeouts and he has hit into one double play. The 2012 Gold Glove winner at third base, Sparks also committed a throwing error in the seventh inning Saturday that led to three unearned runs.
Spencer, the Big West batting champion last season who hit .373 on his way to second-team all-conference laurels, was zero for seven Saturday and is now hitless in 11 official at-bats. Spencer struck out twice on Saturday and hit into a double play on Friday.
Gillespie took his two top offensive threats aside after his postgame address to the team and tried to deliver some relief in a conversation that lasted about five minutes.
“I just feel like they feel the weight of the world on them,” said Gillespie, who saw both strand eight runners Saturday, five in scoring position. Sparks has now stranded 12 runners in two games, seven in scoring position, while Spencer has left 10 teammates holding the bag in two games, six in scoring position. “I just told them to keep plugging. I wish I knew the magic words [to break their hitting drought], but I don’t.”
UCI, however, appeared to have some offensive answers for a three-hit shutout on Friday in which their starters went a combined one for 29 (a 50-foot infield single).
Sophomore designated hitter Grant Palmer, who was one of two pinch-hitters to rap out singles Friday, was three for five in his first starting assignment. He scored twice.
Junior leadoff man Kris Paulino was two for five with two RBIs and junior shortstop Chris Rabago was two for five with one RBI.
Junior catcher Jerry McClanahan and freshman center fielder Evan Cassolato added singles to the hosts’ 10-hit attack, which included a pinch-hit RBI single by sophomore Jonathan Herkins.
Sophomore Mikey Duarte drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk during a four-run fourth inning that helped UCI erase a 2-0 deficit. Rabago plated a run in the same inning when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
Sparks first scoring fly ball capped the fourth-inning outburst and his second produced an unearned run in the ‘Eaters’ two-run eighth. Those two eighth-inning runs forged a 6-6 deadlock that ended in the 12th, when Fresno State’s Brody Russell singled in a run to give the visitors a lead.
But UCI rallied in the bottom of the inning as McClanahan worked a leadoff walk, reached second on Ryan Cooper’s sacrifice bunt, went to third on a single by Palmer and scored on Herkins’ single up the middle.
The Bulldogs, who produced seven of their eight runs with two outs, did just that in the 13th, when Taylor Wood cashed in Taylor Tempel, who had doubled to open the frame.
Rabago doubled to open the UCI 13th, but was stranded at second.
Trent Woodward, a junior designated hitter who transferred to Fresno from Orange Coast College, was two for four with two RBIs, two runs, two walks for the Bulldogs (2-0).
Gillespie said senior Evan Brock would be the starting pitcher for UCI in Sunday’s series finale at 1 p.m.
Fresno State 8, UC Irvine 7 (13 innings)
SCORE BY INNINGS
FSU 200 010 300 001 1 – 8 15 1
UCI 000 400 020 001 0 – 7 10 1
Quinn, Rodriguez (4), Borst (4), Chase (6), Mundell (7), Munroe (9) and Ward; Surrey, Manarino (5), Fielding (8), Litchfield (9), Martin (13) and McCLanahan. W – Monroe, 1-0. L – Matin, 0-1. 2B – Luplow (FSU), Paulino (UCI), Mariscol (FSU), Medrano (FSU), Tempel (FSU), Viers (FSU).