LOS ANGELES — In the four-month marathon that is the college baseball regular season, there are stretches that can shape a team's psyche, for good or bad.
It was the first win on Tuesday in more than a month for the Anteaters, who soundly handled a USC squad that had won nine straight, including Pac-12 sweeps of the last two national champions in Arizona (2012) and UCLA (2013).
On the heels of late-inning heroics that led to three dramatic Big West Conference wins at UC Davis over the weekend, Tuesday's triumph continued to elevate the profile of an Anteaters squad ranked No. 20 by Collegiate Baseball, that improved to 29-14.
"I'm not into comparing scores, but I do think it's fair to try to make the point that we ought to come to the realization that it's not an upset for us to win," said UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, who played for and coached the Trojans for 20 seasons, including their last national championship campaign in 1998.
UCI, for which six players had hits, four drove in runs, and four more scored runs, added seven walks and three Trojans' errors to its nine-hit attack. It all enabled the visitors to mount more than enough offense against five USC pitchers.
UCI pitching was also sterling, as was its defense. Junior Evan Manarino, making his first start in four weeks, worked four innings without allowing a run. He has now failed to surrender a run in his last four appearances. Junior Matt Fielding picked up his second relief win in four games and senior Jimmy Litchfield pocketed his second save this season in his 110th career appearance, now three away from tying Blair Erickson's school record.
Junior center fielder Justin Castro ran down multiple deep drives, sophomore left fielder Grant Palmer made a diving catch of a sinking liner for the final out, and junior right fielder Kris Paulino caught a shallow fly ball along the line and threw a one-hop strike to nail a runner tagging from third base for one of UCI's two double plays.
Palmer, the 'Eaters' leadoff man, went three for five and scored twice as the leading catalyst, though he was far from the lone UCI standout.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer was two for four and drove in the go-ahead run to break a 1-1 deadlock in what turned out to be a four-run seventh inning.
Sophomore designated hitter Jonathan Munoz was one for three and drove in two runs, while junior catcher Jerry McClanahan and Paulino added single RBIs for the winners, who at 11-1 in conference have overtaken Cal Poly San Luis Obispo atop the Big West standings.
The Mustangs (36-8, 12-3 in conference), ranked in the top five in three national polls, are suddenly slumping. They lost to Pepperdine on Tuesday to extend their skid to three straight games.
"We will preach the doctrine [before a three-game Big West home series against UC Santa Barbara begins on Friday] that we should know we can play with anybody," said Gillespie, for whom the right-field scoreboard at USC is named. "We know the early conference schedule has worked in our favor [front-loaded with second-division teams], but we have played other good teams and played other good teams well, even in some [nonconference games] that we have lost. It's a confidence that we've developed."
Palmer agreed that he and his teammates are feeling better about themselves lately.
"Absolutely," Palmer said of the mounting momentum. "These Tuesday games are so important and that was an SC team that's really hot right now. So, to get a win at their place is critical to keep our playoff hopes alive.
"We're throwing strikes, playing D, everyone in the lineup is contributing [offensively] and we are playing fundamentally sound. It's fun to watch."
USC, which has not beaten UCI at home since 2010, fell to 24-18.
UC Irvine 6, USC 2
SCORE BY INNINGS
UCI 001 000 401 – 6 9 1
USC 000 001 001 – 2 10 3
Manarino, Merten (5), Fielding (6), Litchfield (8) and McClanahan; Kriske, Paschke (4), Guillen (7), Nootbaar (8), Adler (9) and Stubbs. W – Fielding, 2-0. L – Paschke, 2-3. Sv – Litchfield (2). 2B – Palmer (UCI), Swick (USC), Robinson (USC), Lacey (USC).