May 28, 2010

By Harold Gutmann
Special to NCAA.com

CARY, N.C. -- UC San Diego has a philosophy that everyone picks each other up. So when starter Kirby St. John broke a string of outstanding pitching performances for the Tritons, reliever Guido Knudson allowed just one baserunner in relief. And when five different players ran themselves into outs through five innings, the offense eventually bailed them out.

The result was a 6-3 victory over Franklin Pierce on Thursday in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II National Baseball Championships.

In just their 10th year at the Division II level, the top-ranked Tritons (54-7) will play in their first title game at noon Saturday at the USA Baseball National Training Complex. They will face the winner of Friday's semifinal between No. 4 Georgia College and No. 9 Southern Indiana.

UCSD lost in the semifinals last season in its first national tournament appearance. Franklin Pierce (43-17-1), which has been to this stage five times in 10 years, fell to 0-3 in the semifinals.

"We know we belong this year," said Tritons third baseman Evan Kehoe, who was 2-for-3 with three RBIs. "All year that's been our goal, and it feels like it's where we should be at the end."

Knudson (10-3) allowed just one hit in 4 2/3 innings, striking out four and throwing 34 of 49 pitches for strikes.

"Guys picked each other up all day," UCSD coach Dan O'Brien said. "Kirby St. John wasn't at his best, but he battled like he always does, like a senior and team captain and a four-year starter, and Guido came out and picked him up."

Five players had multiple hits, and everyone had at least one except Grant Bauer, who executed a suicide squeeze perfectly.

"We're trying to set an NCAA record for outs on the bases, (but) those same guys banged out six runs on 13 hits," O'Brien said. "We didn't score as many as we probably should have, but we had guys step up and pick guys up."

Franklin Pierce was playing for the third straight day after losing the tournament opener in 9 hours 13 minutes, the fourth-longest non-suspended game in NCAA history. But Cody Kauffman hit a first-pitch fastball for a two-run homer in the second inning to give the Ravens a 3-2 lead. It was Kauffman's third home run, and only the sixth through 12 games at the finals. "Obviously it doesn't feel good, but I'm happy with the way my guys competed," Franklin Pierce coach Jayson King said. "We put together a great season, but only one team can be the national champion."

UCSD and Franklin Pierce had been the stingiest teams at the national finals. In a combined five games, neither team had given up more than two runs in a game.

But the Tritons got that from their first two batters. Vance Albitz walked and Kyle Saul reached on a bunt single, and both came around to score on a two-out single by Kehoe. Danny Susdorf followed with another single, but Kehoe was caught at home on a failed double steal. Kehoe was one of five runners thrown out on the basepaths, including three pickoffs by starter Heath Wasylow (3-4).

The Tritons finally regained the lead with a three-run sixth in which the heart of the lineup came through with hits. That included Brandon Gregorich, who was batting a school-record .469 entering the finals but was hitless in his first 10 at-bats.

"I have been struggling a little bit this week, but if you keep battling, good things are going to happen," said Gregorich, who finished 1-for-3.

Kehoe came through with an RBI double to chase Wasylow, Gregorich put the Tritons ahead on a wild pitch from T.J. Ferguson and Kehoe scored to make it 5-3 on a sacrifice fly by Kellen Lee.

The only Ravens runner against Knudson was Mike Munoz, who singled with two outs in the sixth. When Munoz tried to steal second, designated hitter Aaron Pearson got in the catcher's way on the throw and was called out for interference.

The Tritons had gotten complete-game wins from ABCA/Rawlings West Region Pitcher of the Year Tim Shibuya and Daktronics West Region Pitcher of the Year Matt Rossman to start the tournament.

But instead of coming back with Shibuya on full rest, UCSD went with St. John, who threw a complete game in the conference tournament championship. St. John gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings, but Knudson came through. And now the Tritons have both Shibuya and Rossman for the championship game.

"We were going to go with Tim up until (Wednesday) night," O'Brien said. "Some people might say we rolled the dice, but I don't think we did. We trust our staff. We had our Nos. 3 and 4 starters ready to go, and they combined to get us a `W,` which keeps us 100 percent rested for Saturday with our No. 1 and No. 2, who are both all-Americans."