Taylor Chris was the saving grace the Cal Poly baseball team needed if it wanted any chance of overcoming an early five-run deficit Sunday and forcing a winner-take-all game with Pepperdine in the San Luis Obispo Regional at Baggett Stadium.
The junior left-hander, normally reserved for shorter, late-inning situations, stemmed the tide in the second inning and pitched into the ninth, providing a calming force as the Mustangs chipped away at the Waves and eventually drew even in the top of the eighth.
“If you can keep it close, you have a chance to win … and that’s what Taylor allowed us,” coach Larry Lee said following Cal Poly’s season-ending 10-6 defeat. “He kept us in the ballgame.”
Chris finished with a career-high 100 pitches — 68 for strikes — and struck out four to go along with seven hits and a walk.
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Four of those hits came in the ninth, when the energy of a game-tying bottom of the eighth was drained by two bunts and a high chopper over third baseman Jimmy Allen’s head to load the bases with no outs.
That brought up Pepperdine’s No. 3 hitter, Bryan Langlois, who worked a full count and smacked the ninth pitch of the at-bat, a changeup, into the gap in right-center to clear the bases with a stand-up triple.
“My changeup has been my best pitch all year,” said Chris (4-1), who was hit with his first loss of the season. “I’ll either be a hero or go down with that pitch.”
After Chris did not appear in any of the Mustangs’ first three games in the regional, Lee wasted no time in turning to his team ERA leader in the fourth contest, as Danny Zandona’s start crumbled with two outs in the second inning.
Zandona had cruised through the first inning and the first two batters of the second, until a sharp single up the middle by Pepperdine catcher Aaron Barnett led the way to four more hits, two walks and a 5-0 lead for the Waves.
Chris immediately ended the threat by getting Aaron Brown to fly out to center field, and the Gilroy native sent down all six batters in order in the third and fourth innings.
“He’s done this the entire year,” Lee said. “Two of the main reasons why we’ve been so successful is Taylor and Reed Reilly. They’ve been the backbone of the pitching staff.”
Chris’ previous longest outing was a five-inning, four-strikeout, scoreless performance in a win over UC Davis, and he threw 60 pitches in 3 1⁄3 innings in a win over UC Riverside.
He entered the weekend with a team-best 0.91 ERA, but had to wait until the night game Sunday to make his first appearance.
“I thought it played out perfect,” Chris said. “It gave me a chance to get us to Monday. If you get to Monday, anything can happen.”
After giving up a leadoff double that came around to score on a groundout in the fifth, Chris retired nine of the next 10 batters with Cal Poly beginning to close in on Pepperdine’s lead.
Nick Torres homered in the seventh to make it a two-run game, and Chris kept it that way in the eighth despite his own throwing error on a leadoff bunt by Brown.
With Brown on second, Chris got Barnett to ground out and struck out Brad Anderson and Chris Fornaci.
The Cal Poly bats tied it in the bottom half to seize back momentum, and although his pitch count was at a season-high 79, Chris said he took the mound in the ninth ready to get the Mustangs’ hot hitters back in the box.
“I felt like I was going to strike the next three guys out, I was going to be fired up, and we were going to walk off the field,” he said. “All these guys have been fighting so hard.”
A couple fortuitous Pepperdine bounces and a bases-clearing triple silenced the raucous sellout crowd and ended Cal Poly’s season, but Chris’ seven-inning effort was what made the near-comeback possible.
“The hit happened, and — that’s just baseball,” Chris said. “You’re going to live or die by it, and that’s why we love the game.”