Baseball closes their season leaving hope for the future

Janelle Soto/HIGHLANDER
Janelle Soto/HIGHLANDER

 

Being a team’s new head coach is both a blessing and a curse. On one end you are viewed in a positive manner, as a ray of hope for an organization searching for direction, but on the other there are a slew of high — often unreachable — expectations set to measure your success.

UC Riverside head baseball coach Troy Percival has certainly experienced both the highs and the lows during this trying season. Being a former pitcher for the Anaheim Angels as well as a UCR alum, there were visions that he could take a team that went 26-28 last year and finally push them over the hump. Unfortunately this vision went unfulfilled, last Sunday being a prime example as the team lost their 11th game in a row. Luckily, over the weekend the team was finally able to put a lid on this once promising can of spoils that became their season as they faced UC Santa Barbara in their final series of the year. So, without further ado, let us see how they fared…

 

May 21, 2015

Gauchos 20 – Highlanders 2

The odds certainly weren’t in the Highlanders favor entering Thursday’s matchup against the nation’s 10th ranked team, UC Santa Barbara. But the outlook seemed a bit brighter when the team learned that UCSB would be resting stud pitcher Dillon Tate and instead starting Dillon Maza. But UCR had pitching issues of their own, as UCSB opened the floodgates right away, scoring a whopping nine runs in the top of the first inning.

The barrage forced coach Percival to go to three different pitchers during the frame. Starter Antonio Gonzalez, who took the loss for the Highlanders, walked three of the four batters he faced and hit the other, allowing one run. He was replaced by Jesus Gonzalez whose night ended even quicker after allowing seven runs to the five total batters he faced. Next up to the mound was Jordan Kron, who managed to get the Highlanders out of the inning by recording the first three outs of the game, but not without allowing an RBI double, making it 9-0 Gauchos.

The Highlanders failed to respond to the rally going scoreless until managing one run in the fourth off a Mark Contreras single which brought AJ Sawyer home. In that span, though, the Gauchos totaled three more runs making the score 12-1 after the fourth inning. UCSB went on to score eight more runs, highlighted by a five-run rally in the sixth inning which UCR followed up with a single run of their own.

The 20-2 loss amounts to the Highlanders’ worst loss of the season and despite the fantastic offensive display from the Gauchos, the game was all about pitching. An underwhelming outing from the Highlander pitching staff was matched by quite an inspiring performance from UCSB starter Domenic Mazza (6-1). Mazza filled in admirably for potential number one draft pick Tate and showed poise on the mound, allowing a mere seven runs in eight innings of work, striking out four. Meanwhile, UCR pitcher Antonio Gonzalez (0-3) took the loss despite facing only four batters to start the game.

 

May 22, 2015

Gauchos 2 – Highlanders 3

The tables were turned Friday night at the Plex as the UC Riverside baseball team was finally able to put the lid on a 12-game losing streak, beating UC Santa Barbara 3-2.

Early on, the crowd was full of nonbelievers. Many, including myself, took the day’s dreary weather as a prelude for another discouraging loss ready to ensue. The fan next to me announced, “Here it comes,” as he sat back, adjusted his UCSB cap and prepared to enjoy what he expected to be another thrashing in his favor.

The Highlanders looked quite composed prior to the game, taking the field with more pep than should be allowed in one’s step just 22 hours after suffering your worst defeat of the season. Undeterred, the team carried their confidence right into the action, setting the pace for the game early as they managed to score all three of their runs in the first inning. The first two were thanks to a Vince Fernandez two-run double which brought Joe Chavez and Mark Contreras home. Fernandez then scored on an Austin Colvin RBI groundout.

The three runs proved to be enough as the Highlanders managed to shut out Santa Barbara for the first six innings before giving up one run in the seventh and eighth, respectively. The Gauchos threatened to tie or take the lead in the top of the ninth by getting a runner to third, but coach Percival made the call to put in pitcher Ryan Lillie who struck out the first batter he faced to give the Highlanders their first win in the month of May.

It was a wonderful response from UCR after the barrage from the Gauchos on Thursday and there isn’t enough to be said about their display of resilience. As good as the offense was, though, the catalyst to their win was starting pitcher Joie Dunyon.

Friday marked Dunyon’s final start in a Highlander uniform and he delivered arguably the best performance of his career; allowing just five hits and totalling four strikeouts in 8.2 innings of work. Dunyon came out aggressive early, hitting the strike zone with consistency. The team was able to feed off of his production as he shut down one of the best offenses in the nation.

Said Dunyon to ESPN, “I knew it was going to be the last time I was going to play here…I laid it all out tonight.” It’s that type of all-or-nothing approach that have allowed the team as a whole to continue moving forward.

 

May 23, 2015

Gauchos 2 – Highlanders 3

“For the seniors of this class, you guys have been fantastic, great leadership for these young kids…I know it has not been the best year but it has been a great year for me to go through it with all of you.”

These were the words of coach Troy Percival prior to baseball’s final game of the season on Saturday. It was senior day for the Highlanders and six seniors would be looking to make it a memorable end to their collegiate careers.

The day started off well as the Highlanders were able to once again set the pace of the game,  when Vince Fernandez sent a ball over the right field fence on a 1-0 count.

Meanwhile, pitching remained a strength for the Highlanders as senior starter Kevin Sprague looked to match Friday evening’s performance from teammate Joie Dunyon. Sprague held his own on the mound, shutting out the Gauchos for five straight innings before being replaced after faltering a bit in the sixth.

UCR continued to provide Sprague with run support throughout as they scored one run in the fourth and seventh respectively.

In the surprise of the evening, coach Percival was able to give Friday’s star, Joie Dunyon, an opportunity to get on the field. In the seventh inning, once Alex Rubanowitz reached on a one-out single, Percival had Dunyon replace him as a pinch runner — one final moment for the senior. Matthew Ellis singled, sending Dunyon to third and Austin Colvin’s sac-fly brought him home.

It was a heartwarming move from the coach and was fitting as the team’s final run of the season. Sealing a 3-2 victory and surprising series win over an undisputed top team in the nation.

The win made it two in a row for UCR baseball and in a season full of crushing blows at their expense, they got to deliver one of their own as the loss put a damper on UCSB’s case for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Regionals.

All in all, the players were having fun on the field and their carefree play ended up being some of their most inspiring of the season. This team now looks to the future as Coach Percival and his staff have worked hard at recruiting throughout the year and have more than a few talented freshmen ready to step into a bigger role in 2016. As rough as the season has been, they showed great stability as a team, and, who knows? If it all pans out, maybe UCR will be able to capture their first Big West title and NCAA Tournament bid since 2007. It will certainly be a story worth watching unfold.

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