The streak stayed alive. A Big West Conference record was extended. And the first round of a slugfest between the top two conference teams lived up to its billing.
None of those things, it turned out, were good for the Cal Poly baseball team, but there was little shame at Baggett Stadium on Friday night in a 3-2 loss to UC Irvine.
“We did everything that we could to win this game tonight,” junior right fielder Nick Torres said. “Really the only difference that would have changed everything is if we came away with a ‘W’ instead of a loss.
“If we come out of this with a win, we’re coming out saying, ‘Wow, what a great game we just played.’ We can’t look at it in a negative way. Everybody’s still confident.”
Mustangs starter Matt Imhof struck out 13 in eight innings, and closer Reed Reilly struck out two more in a perfect ninth. Torres was 2 for 4 at the plate, Mark Mathias had a run-scoring single, and Jordan Ellis executed a perfect squeeze bunt for the go-ahead run in the third inning.
But Big West-leading and No. 23 UC Irvine (34-14, 15-1 Big West) countered No. 7 Cal Poly (39-10, 14-5 Big West) at every turn.
Anteaters starter Andrew Morales allowed only two runs on five hits and a walk while striking out nine to improve his Division I collegiate record to 19-0. The senior right-hander is unbeaten in two seasons and owns a 30-1 record including his time at Rio Hondo Community College.
UC Irvine closer Sam Moore extended his conference-record and nation-leading saves total to 23 with a scoreless ninth. Owner of a nasty splitter, Moore started each of the four Mustangs batters he faced on 0-2 counts.
Torres led off the bottom of the ninth with a bloop single to left, but he never got past first base as Moore struck out the next three batters.
Opportunities were few against all four pitchers, but the Anteaters came up with two clutch RBI singles and a sacrifice fly that scored the winning run in the fifth inning and played error-free in the field.
Cal Poly only had one error, and it was a costly one. Attempting a pickoff play in the fifth, Imhof was off on his throw to second, and UC Irvine’s John Brontsema advanced to third on the play with one out.
That allowed Chris Rabago to drive in Brontsema with a sacrifice fly to right, which Torres caught on the run in foul territory.
Imhof gave up three runs, two earned, on three hits and four walks. The 13 strikeouts represented his fifth double-digit total of the season and were two short of his career high.
“Overall, it was the best he’s been in a while,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “He really had the fastball command and we threw a few changeups and the slider was OK, but he threw well.”
But that unearned run ended up being the difference.
“It’s on me throwing that ball into center field,” Imhof said. “Getting that guy into scoring position; if I eliminate that, if I make a good throw, it’s a 2-2 game.
“I felt good today, felt like I pitched a pretty good game. It just sucks that you leave it all on the field, and you lose by a run in a game like this. It’s just tough to swallow.”
There is, however, a streak going in Cal Poly’s favor, although not as impressive as Morales’ run.
Imhof has taken losses in the opening game of three series prior to this one, and each time, the Mustangs have rallied to take the next two.
Regardless of what happens in the next two games, Cal Poly needs help to overtake UC Irvine for the conference lead, but a series victory would go a long way in convincing people the Mustangs deserve to host an NCAA Regional.
Imhof’s previous three losses came at UCLA in February, at home against UC Santa Barbara in April and last week at UC Riverside.
The Mustangs whipped the Bruins 8-1 and 9-1, edged the Gauchos 8-7 and 1-0 and took out the Highlanders 7-5 and 7-2 after the Imhof starts in those series.
Cal Poly has always responded to an Imhof loss with a bunch of runs, and that’s what the Mustangs will likely need against the Anteaters.
UC Irvine sends Elliot Surrey to the mound. The left-hander is 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA, though he is not nearly as overpowering as Morales.
The good news for Cal Poly is that Mustangs batters are hitting .321 against left-handers, a 34-point improvement over their averages against righties.
Sending freshman Justin Calomeni to start today, Cal Poly needs its offense to come through again.
“We need to be able to swing the bat,” Lee said. “We’ll need that. We really need to get back to swinging the bat. We had a couple guys in the lineup tonight that were just outmatched and it showed, but that’s one of the better pitchers in the country, and they’re playing as well as anybody.”