The bases were loaded with Anteaters with two outs in the top of he ninth inning and UCSB clinging to a 3-2 lead, but closer Chris Lincoln was unfazed and unleashed a wicked breaking ball to strike out Mikey Filia and secure the victory.
The great escape completed a three-game sweep of No. 15 ranked UC Irvine and served notice to the rest of the Big West and the country that the Gauchos are a force to be reckoned with.
“Going into it you’re hoping to win the series, you’re not thinking a sweep is very realistic based on how they’ve played,” said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. “They’ve swept a lot of people. Sometimes I can be a little pessimistic and after we won on Friday I came home and said ‘well we can’t get swept.’”
Once again it was freshman starting pitcher Rodney Boone battling on the mound and giving UCSB an opportunity to win a hard fought game. Boone surrendered two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings of work with six strikeouts.
The UCSB bats were unable to square up UC Irvine starting pitcher Trenton Denholm in the early innings and the onus fell on Boone to keep the game within reach and that’s what he did.
UC Irvine leadoff hitter Jake Palmer launched a solo home run over the right field fence in the top of the third inning, giving the Anteaters a 1-0 lead, but Boone responded by retiring the next seven batters in order.
“He gave us a chance. He bounced back after the homerun and didn’t get shook,” Checketts said. “He’s been very poised from the start. He had a good changeup going for him and was able to navigate around some command (issues) where he was behind in some counts.”
Denholm came into the game with a 6-0 record and a 1.53 ERA and was nearly unhittable in the early innings. The location and velocity of his fastball kept the Gauchos off balance until they broke through in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Armani Smith sparked the rally with a double to left field and O’Connor McClain drove him in with a triple to the center-field fence that evened the score at 1-1.
McClain scored on a single to right field by Kyle Johnson and Jason Willow followed with a triple to the left-center field gap that brought home Johnson and increased the UCSB lead to 3-1.
“It looked like his velocity maybe was down a little more in the middle innings and the (ball) started to get up a little bit. We finally were able to catch up to the fastball and weren’t swinging at the off speed,” said Checketts of his team’s relative success against Denholm. “It’s not like we were wailing away on him. We threw a little jab and stunned him a little bit and then he was back to doing his thing.”
The Anteaters got one run back in the top of the sixth, cutting their deficit to 3-2 when Brandon Lewis scored on a groundout by Mike Peabody.
UCSB reliver Michael McGreavy pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings setting the stage for Lincoln shut the door in the ninth.
However, Lincon walked Christian Koss and surrendered a single to right field to pinch hitter John Jenson to start the inning. Matt Reitano followed with a sac bunt that moved the runners to second and third.
Lincoln struck out the next batter Sam Ireland with a series of breaking balls. Palmer was intentionally walked loading the bases for Lincoln’s fantastic finish.
“After the sac bunt I just told myself ‘you just have to attack. You have to force them to beat you and not beat yourself,’” Lincoln said. “I broke off seven or eight sliders in a row to finish off those last two guys.
“In the beginning it seemed like they were geared up for fastball, which seems like what a lot of teams try to go up there and do, eliminate the slider gear up for a fastball, and try and hit it as hard as they can.”
With the victory No. 14 UCSB improves to 27-5 overall and 5-1 in Big West play.