With its next game six days away, the UC Irvine baseball team can use a little reflection time to spin their recent struggles, which continued Saturday with a 4-3 nonconference loss to visiting San Diego State.
Despite dropping the three-game series to the Aztecs, losing three of four games during the week and falling to 2-6 in their last eight nonconference games, the Anteaters actually might have improved their position in the Big West Conference standings by being the odd team out of the weekend fray in the nine-team conference.
The Anteaters (25-14), ranked No. 21 by Collegiate Baseball, are 8-1 in Big West games and currently sit solidly in second place, 1.5 games behind front-running Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (11-1 in conference after a weekend sweep of visiting Cal State Fullerton) and two games ahead of third-place UC Riverside (6-3).
Coach Mike Gillespie's Anteaters visit UC Davis for a three-game series beginning Friday, before facing a four-series gauntlet of UCSB, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State to conclude the conference schedule.
"We do not have any illusions about what lies down the road," Gillespie said. "Clearly our path to the playoffs has got to be through the conference, because it can't be with what we've done in the nonconference. We have to be good in conference."
The hosts were better than good through six innings in the finale against the Aztecs (28-12), leading, 1-0, behind senior starting pitcher Evan Brock.
But three singles and a hit batter led to a pair of runs for the visitors in the seventh and San Diego State, which is without Coach Tony Gwynn, who has been out more than a month while battling cancer, added two more runs on three singles in the eighth.
UCI, which saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 3-1 loss in the series opener on Thursday, after the Aztecs erupted for three runs in the eighth inning, are now 7-3 in one-run games in 2014.
UCI, which had eight hits, mounted a charge in the eighth against Aztecs starter Mark Seyler and closer Michael Cederoth.
Junior Chris Rabago, who returned to shortstop for the first time in 16 games (he hurt his throwing shoulder at Cal State Bakersfield on March 25), singled to start the rally against Seyler, who allowed six hits in seven-plus innings. Rabago had been playing as the designated hitter or at third base, with Taylor Sparks shifting from third to short.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer followed with a single off Cederoth, who posted his 15th save to move one behind UCI closer and NCAA saves leader Sam Moore.
After Sparks, who was three for four on the day, fouled out to right field, Jonathan Muñoz became the first of three Cederoth strikeout victims by chasing a ball in the dirt.
But junior catcher Jerry McClanahan, who had UCI's first run batted in with a sacrifice fly in the second inning that plated Sparks, laced a two-run single through the left side to make things interesting. McClanahan advanced to second on the throw home from the outfield and hustled to third when the catcher overthrew second base and the center fielder bobbled the ball for an error.
But sophomore left fielder Grant Palmer bounded out to the first baseman to end the threat and Cederoth, who notched the save on Thursday, worked a perfect ninth inning.
Brock was charged with two runs in 61/3 innings and freshman reliever Sean Sparling was charged with the other two runs without retiring a batter.
Jimmy Litchfield (12/3), Evan Manarino and Mitch Merten combined for 22/3 innings of shutout relief for UCI.
Sparks lifted his batting average 12 points to .320 and McClanahan upped his RBI total to 25, matching Sparks for second on the team behind Spencer (30).
Rabago (two for three) made one of two sterling defensive plays for the hosts. He ranged deep in the hole to backhand a grounder and made a strong throw to nail the runner at first in the first inning.
Sparks dived to his left to snare a one-hop shot and threw to first to start the San Diego State ninth and the Anteaters produced double plays in the first and seventh innings.
San Diego State 4, UC Irvine 3
SCORE BY INNINGS
SDSU 000 000 220 – 4 11 1
UCI 010 000 020 – 3 8 0
Seyler, Cederoth (8) and Haynal; Brock, Manarino (7), Sparling (8), Litchfield (8), Merten (9) and McClanahan. W – Seyler, 6-3. L – Brock, 6-3. Sv – Cederoth (15). 2B – Zier (SD).