GAME 25: UC IRVINE 2, TITANS 1
After a trouble-free first inning by Renken (aided by a great diving grab by 3B Gary Brown), controversy struck in the bottom of the first inning. Brown laced a line drive on which UCI RF Eric Deragisch made a great diving attempt and appeared to have the ball initially. Both Brown and first base umpire Dwayne Finley apparently saw the ball roll under the prone fielder, as Brown motored to third while Finley emphatically motioned with a safe sign. At the request of UCI coach Mike Gillespie, the umpiring crew conferred and the two umpires 200-250 feet away from the play apparently had a better look than the guy 40-50 feet away: the call was reversed, to the chagrin of Coach Serrano, who argued vehemently with plate umpire Billy Van Raaphorst and third base umpire Frank Pflugradt. Notwithstanding the call reversal, the actions of Van Raaphorst to scold Serrano on the way back to the dugout were bush league and unnecessary.
Audience question: to those watching at home on ESPNU, was the call correct? From where I sat behind the plate, I never saw the ball dislodged, but my view was as bad as Van Raaphorst's and nowhere near as good as Brown's and Finley's. Reply in "Comments" just to set the record straight on that call.
Renken got into a little bit of trouble in the second inning on a couple infield singles, but he escaped unscathed, with Dustin Garneau making a nice play to nail the lead runner at third base on an attempted sacrifice bunt.
The Titans did not get a baserunner aboard until Dustin Garneau led off with a walk in the bottom of the third. After he was sacrified to second by Joe Scott, he was stranded when Bibona retired Jeff Newman and Gary Brown.
The 'Eaters put the game's first run on the board in the top of the fourth inning on a long home run by catcher Frances Larson. After another hitless frame by Bibona, UCI added a second run on a double by Casey Stevenson, a sacrifice by Cory Olson and a two-out single by Deragisch past the diving Jared Clark.
The Titans finally got their first hit of the game in the fifth inning when Nick Ramirez led off with a hit and went to third on a double by Khris Davis. Now we're cookin': runners on second and third with nobody out. But the wheels quickly came off the wagon: Garneau struck out and Scott's attempted suicide squeeze bunt was caught in the air by hard-charging 1B Jeff Cusick, who easily doubled Ramirez off third to end the inning. You could feel the momentum sucked out of the dugout and stadium.
From that point on, Bibona and Renken were the show. In the sixth through eighth innings, Renken allowed no hits and just one base runner (a HBP). Bibona was equal to the task, allowing just two harmless singles in his last three innings worked.
After Kyle Mertins pitched a scoreless ninth inning, closer Eric Pettis came on to protect UCI's 2-0 lead. After Gary Brown was called out on strikes on a curve ball about a foot off the plate, Christian Colon drove a base hit into leftfield. Josh Fellhauer got an infield single and both runners moved into scoring position on a throwing error. But Pettis was equal to the task against the Titans 4-5 hitters: Clark was retired on an RBI groundout and Nick Ramirez grounded out to first base to end the game, 2-1.
So what did we learn last night?
For the second consecutive BWC game, Daniel Renken pitched an excellent game but was a hard luck loser when his team could manage just one run. He continues to battle hard and has pitched eight innings in each of last two outings.
The offense is really struggling right now: just one run scored in regulation nine innings in four of the last six games. Baseball has a way of balancing things out: the Titans couldn't possibly have been as good as the way they were hitting during the road trip, nor as bad as they have been since conference play began. Truthfully, every team goes into a funk at least once during a season (usually more), so I'd rather see it now than in June. Give credit to UCR, ASU and UCI: they have had outstanding pitching and defense, the likes of which stand head and shoulders above what we saw from teams in other regions of the baseball landscape.
During the hot streak, I was actually worried because everybody was hot at the same time and now they seem to have gone cold at the same time. But we know the bats will get out of their funk and hopefully soon.
Notwithstanding the controversial first inning call, I thought Van Raaphorst (shown making dinner plans with Gillespie) did one of the worst jobs I've ever seen calling balls and strikes. Curveballs off the plate were strikes and fastballs on the corner were balls. (To his credit he was consistent - even if that means consistently awful.) He baited the Titans dugout all night long - his rabbit ears must have been upgraded to high definition. Gary Brown is one of the best-mannered players around and even he slammed his bat on the plate on the ninth inning strike three that could have been mistaken for a pitchout.
Finally, there were a group of Big West Conference empty suits seated behind home plate last night, yukking it up and having a grand time. One dude - let's call him Geppetto - seemed to be pulling Van Raaphorst's strings throughout the game.
The level of play in the Big West Conference has become frightfully good in the past few years. I would take the teams in this conference, top to bottom, against any other conference in the country. But there is one real sore spot that they should be working on: while the caliber of the teams continues to get better and better, the quality of the umpiring is still substandard. In the past few years - and certainly during this year's arduous road trip - the umpiring we see on the road is vastly superior to what we see in the Big West.
After the game, I "interviewed" Geppetto (okay, "yelled at" might be more accurate), asking him what the league was doing about incompetent umpires like Van Raaphorst and Gilmore and showboats like Rorke Kominek. Geppetto replied, "I have no idea what you are talking about." Sadly, I believe his response is true.
Irvine Wins Battle of the Daniels
GAME 25: UC IRVINE 2, TITANS 1