Much like the script heading into Super Regionals, those scouting reports were correct on Saturday afternoon, too, as the College World Series began with a UC Irvine 3-1 victory over Texas -- a game that saw the Longhorns leave a whopping 12 runners on base, as opposed to just five for the 'Eaters.
"I thought both pitchers looked really good out there today," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "Both teams had a chance to score early in the game, and we did get one [run] during that period of time. But they put that rally together [in the eighth] and that was the difference in the game. They really did a great job of extending the rally in that inning. That was well done against some great pitching."
Though the end result was in UC Irvine's favor, the afternoon didn't start out the best for veteran righthanded pitcher Andrew Morales. Morales, a second-round pick of the Cardinals, usually comes out poised and hammers the strike zone. But in the first inning, jitters got to him as he walked the first two batters of the game. In true Andrew Morales form, he ended the frame without further damage.
Again, Morales faced a heap of trouble in the second inning, as the Longhorns loaded the bases. But yet again, the righty limited damage in the frame, with the only UT run of the inning coming on an RBI single from freshman third baseman Zane Gurwitz.
Texas threatened more throughout the afternoon, but like the first couple of frames, Morales was able to find a way out of the jam. Overall, the Longhorns left two runners on base in the first, third and fifth innings, and had one run to show for it. Morales sat his typical low-90s with the fastball, while also flashing a slider and changeup against UT.
"He made his best pitches when he needed to, and that's the mark of a champion," Garrido said about Morales. "He was able to throw his breaking ball in fastball counts and he was able to command on the outside part of the plate. He located better when runners were in scoring position. I think that had a lot to do with it [leaving so many runners on base]."
While the Longhorns' offense was unable to capitalize on some opportunities against Morales, they were fortunate that senior righthanded pitcher Nathan Thornhill was in a zone with his typical good fastball and changeup. However, on the same token, you felt like it was only a matter of time before UC Irvine broke through.
That breakthrough eventually came in the eighth inning. Thornhill threw seven shutout innings for the Longhorns, but his stuff wasn't quite as crisp to start the eighth. UC Irvine began the inning with a single from Adam Alcantara, while nine-hole hitter Justin Castro moved him to second base with a sacrifice bunt. Then, the 'Eaters blew things open as leadoff hitter and Taylor Sparks hit his team-leading ninth triple of the season to knock in the tying run, while Chris Rabago laced a go-ahead RBI single, and Jonathan Munoz provided some insurance with an RBI single of his own against usually dominant Texas righthanded reliever John Curtiss.
Just like that, and the scouting report, the Anteaters capitalized.
"Taylor Sparks had a spectacular game both offensively and defensively," UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "So we got a hit to lead off the eighth, a good bunt, and a huge hit by Taylor, and then Chris comes up big and we go up 2-1, and Munoz gets a big two-strike base hit. We just strung together some hits."
Sparks finished the afternoon with three hits, while Grant Palmer and Adam Alcantara each had two hits. Meanwhile, for the Longhorns, the top four hitters in the batting order went a combined 2-for-16 against UC Irvine pitching.
UC Irvine righthanded reliever Evan Brock finished out the contest after coming in to pitch with two outs in the seventh inning. Brock, who picked up his first relief win of the season, sat low-90s with his fastball and kept UT's hitters off balance, recording three strikeouts and retiring all seven batters he faced.
UC Irvine, which plenty of scouting reports have suggested, once again wasn't overly flashy. But Andrew Morales showed his leadership and poise by working out of jams, and offensive veterans like Taylor Sparks rose to the occasion when needed the most.
Just a typical game for the gritty, scary, Anteaters.
GAME AT A GLANCE
Player of the game: Taylor Sparks, 3b, UC Irvine
Turning point: The Longhorns carried a 1-0 lead over the Anteaters into the eighth inning, but that's when the Anteaters opened things up. UC Irvine got the leadoff runner on in the eighth inning, and two batters later, Taylor Sparks hit an RBI triple, that, no pun intended, seemed to spark the 'Eaters from an offensive standpoint. Irvine went on cruise control after that hit.
Did you know? Taylor Sparks leads the Anteaters in both doubles and triples this season. His double in the third inning pushed his season total to 17, while he leads the club in triples with nine. Nine triples also leads all of college baseball.