IRVINE, Calif.—Few college baseball teams in America play defense better than UC Irvine. The Anteaters rank eighth in the nation in fielding percentage (.977), and they pride themselves in making all the routine plays and then some.
That’s why it was so jarring to see Irvine commit four errors in a 5-0 loss to Virginia on Saturday night. Virginia exploited two of them to break a scoreless tie in the fifth inning with a pair of runs, then benefitted from another error (by rock-solid shortstop Ben Orloff, no less) in a three-run sixth. Virginia’s Franco Valdes provided the big blow with a two-run single to center.
"Part of our story this year is we’ve played very, very well on defense, and at times played highlight defense," UCI coach Mike Gillespie said. "So this is very atypical for us."
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, played flawlessly on defense, and second baseman Keith Werman was involved with two key double plays to quash Irvine rallies. In the second inning, the Anteaters put runners on first and second with one out, but Werman made a leaping catch of a D.J. Crumlich liner, then ran to second base to double off Jeff Cusick. Then, in the eighth, Irvine loaded the bases with one out, but Cusick hit into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play, with Werman making a terrific turn.
"This regional right now is showing that it is a pitching-and-defense regional," Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. "Maybe it has somethign to do with the ballpark, maybe something to do with the quality of arms that are in this tournament. i just think defense is so important, and today was very uncharacterstic of irvine. When that happens and you’re playing in that ballpark, you have to capitalize on it. Fortunately we did."
Indeed, the Cavs are out-’Eatering the ‘Eaters. Of course, lost amidst Virginia’s offensive outburst this season is the fact that UVa.’s Davenport Field plays very similarly to Anteater Ballpark, and the Cavaliers are always constructed to win games in pitcher-friendly parks. As usual, they are an athletic, fast club that plays great defense and has quality pitching.
On Saturday, freshman lefthander Danny Hultzen supplied the pitching, allowing just six hits and a walk over 7 1/3 scoreless innings.
"Danny Hultzen was terrific tonight," O’Connor said. "I think that was one of his better outings of the year. He pitched out of numerous jams, just really stepped up. I held him back from pitching Friday because I thought this was going to be the key ballgame. I’ve got a lot of respect for irvine’s club—I think they’re very, very good."
Certainly they are, but the top-ranked Anteaters face an elimination game tomorrow afternoon against San Diego State. As Orloff put it, "Our backs are against the wall now."
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