Sparks’ Heroics Lead Anteaters Past Longhorns

OMAHA--Taylor Sparks didn’t see a reason to wait around.

The UC Irvine third baseman had been aggressive early in the count all afternoon, and with the way Texas’ Nathan Thornhill had been attacking the strike zone, he wasn’t going to change now. When Sparks came to bat with the tying run on second base and his team down 1-0 in the eighth inning, Thornhill started him with a cutter down and away. Not a bad pitch, but with how Sparks has been locked in, that wasn’t going to stop him.

Game At A Glance
Turning Point: Texas starter Nathan Thornhill had been cruising until Taylor Sparks turned the game on its ear in one swing. Sparks’ first-pitch triple with one-out in the eighth tied the game at 1-1 and brought an end to Thornhill’s afternoon. Chris Rabago brought Sparks home with the winning run on the first pitch from Thornhill’s replacement, John Curtiss.

The Hero: Sparks has been Irvine’s hottest hitter in the postseason, carrying a .458 average through six NCAA games into Saturday, and he kept rolling against Texas. Sparks had three hits against the Longhorns, finishing a homer--which was a near-impossible feat in Saturday’s windy conditons--short of the cycle, and made several tough plays at the hot corner as well.

You Might Have Missed: Longhorns center fielder Mark Payton saw his extraordinary 101-game on-base streak end, going 0-for-4. Payton had last failed to reach base on March 3, 2013, at Stanford.

Box Score


“I felt like I was able to pick up on it pretty early,” Sparks said. “I just put a good swing on it. I figured no reason, in the eighth inning, to really wait and get deep in the count. I figured just go after whatever pitch I can hit, and luckily I was able to put a good swing on that one.”

Sparks turned on the ball and drilled it into the left-center field gap, cutting through a stiff 35 mph wind blowing in from center field. He legged out a triple, which brought Adam Alcantara around to tie the game and served as the biggest blow in Irvine’s three-run rally in the top of the eighth, as the underdog Anteaters continued their improbable postseason run with a 3-1 win in the opening game of the College World Series on Saturday in Omaha.

While Irvine made the most of its one opportunity at a big inning--the eighth was the only time all day it got multiple runners on base--Texas had numerous chances to take control of the game. And each one slipped through its grasp.

Anteaters ace Andrew Morales struggled to command his 89-92 mph fastball and was pitching under duress constantly in the early innings. He allowed five hits and two walks just in the first three frames alone, but Texas managed only one run, on an RBI bunt single from nine-hole hitter Zane Gurwitz in the bottom of the second. The Longhorns went on to load the bases with one out for Nos. 2 and 3 hitters Ben Johnson and Mark Payton, a golden opportunity at an early knockout blow.

“Our players understand the importance of limiting the damage and putting a stop to things,” Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “It’s a term that we use, that we need a stop. We’ve just got to bring things to a halt. I think oftentimes that’s a mentality.”

Morales got the stop. The senior buckled down, getting Johnson swinging on a slider--which remained highly effective despite his command problems--and Payton to bounce a ball back to the mound.

The inning was a portent of things to come. The Longhorns stranded at least one runner in scoring position in four of the first five innings and went just 2-for-12 on the day with runners in scoring position.

“That’s the true mark of a champion,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said of Morales. “He was even better in those situations. He got ahead on hitters, he used his breaking ball in fastball counts. He hit the outside half of the plate. He located better (when) he got the runners in scoring position. Just think about the pitches that he made.”

Taylor Sparks

Taylor Sparks drills his game-changing triple against Texas (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Garrido certainly knows something about champions. Saturday’s game featured two of the sport’s coaching icons in Garrido and Gillespie, long-time foes at old stops Cal State Fullerton and Southern California, respectively. Saturday was their second meeting in Omaha--Garrido’s legendary 1995 Fullerton team beat Gillespie and USC in that year’s national title game--and their resumes include 2,954 combined wins.

But when it came time to match wits in the crucial eighth inning Saturday, Gillespie got the better of Garrido this time around.

Following Sparks’ game-tying triple, the go-ahead run stood just 90 feet away with one out. Gillespie’s ‘Eaters have a penchant for squeeze plays, highlighted by their famously pulling off a double squeeze in regionals against Oregon State, and this looked like a perfect opportunity. Garrido knew it and had his defense ready.

However, Gillespie knew just as well that a squeeze wouldn’t take Garrido by surpise. So he found another way to do it--by doing the opposite. Gillespie turned Chris Rabago loose, and he punched John Curtiss’ first pitch up the middle to bring in Sparks with the go-ahead run.

“I was surprised they didn’t squeeze,” Garrido said. “But we were doing some things to help them understand we knew they might.”

Gillespie joked about the decision during his postgame press conference.

“There’s a rumor that we squeeze. It’s a myth. We’re trying to live that down. We’re a big-inning club.

“Certainly, the squeeze has been important to us. Chris would be up to it. Part of the problem with the squeeze is that you don’t always get a pitch to work with, and every once in a while some shrewd dirty rat like Augie might pitch out. It’s not just an easy slam dunk decision to squeeze all the time.”

Irvine added another insurance run later in the inning, while righthander Evan Brock, normally UCI’s third starter but brought out of the bullpen Saturday, stifled any chance of a Texas comeback, retiring all seven men he faced to close the game. He struck out the side in order in the ninth, freezing Tres Barrera on a 93 mph fastball with his final pitch.

“Getting the butterflies out had something to do with getting our rhythm back and everything, but that’s the kind of team we are,” Sparks said. “We keep fighting, and we eventually figured out what we had to do.”