OMAHA, Neb. -- Get on, get him over. UC Irvine and Texas abide by the same motto.
In a game that featured two teams with the most sacrifice bunts in the nation -- and two of the winningest head coaches the sport has seen with a combined 2,954 victories -- it was only fitting for the first run to score on a bunt base hit.
Unfortunately for Augie Garrido’s Longhorns, it was all they could muster in a 3-1 loss to the Anteaters in Game 1 of the 2014 College World Series.Both teams used the bunt effectively Saturday, including Texas in the second inning. Kacy Clemens laid down what was supposed to be a sacrifice, but UC Irvine starting pitcher Andrew Morales picked up the ball and didn’t get an out putting runners on first and third. Zane Gurwitz followed with a bunt of his own, pushing it past the glove of Morales in what looked like a safety squeeze.
Just like that, Texas led 1-0 by using the same strategy used by UC Irvine head coach Mike Gillespie and his Anteaters.
Texas had plenty more chances to score, but Morales was able to get out of jam after jam, lasting six innings while striking out five and allowing six hits. The nation’s strikeout leader, Morales was unusually wild, tying a season high with three walks.
But he kept his team in the game, as Texas left 12 runners on base.
“By keeping the game close and with no clock in this game, it made us possible to come back in the eighth,” Gillespie said.
Morales’ counterpart, Nathan Thornhill, was brilliant in his first seven innings of work, not allowing a run and retiring eight in a row before a leadoff single by Adam Alcantara in the eighth.
Then it was time for a bunt. Juan Castro laid down a perfect sacrifice, which brought up Taylor Sparks. And on a day when the wind was howling in from center field at 35 mph, Sparks hit a ball as far as anyone could into the gap in left-center field for his NCAA-leading ninth triple of the season to score Alcantara. It was the first triple Thornhill allowed all season.
A team that relies so much on the bunt tied the game on a ball that would’ve scored a runner from anywhere.
“The wind was really howling in, so I knew anything lifted, it wasn't going anywhere,” Sparks said. “I just tried to stay flat with that and was able to travel through the gap -- it’s definitely my most special favorite hit I’ve had so far.”
Sparks finished a home run shy of the cycle in going 3-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI.
Nearly all 23,796 fans in attendance -- and Texas -- thought for sure Chris Rabago would lay down a bunt with one out and Sparks standing on third in a tie game. UC Irvine and Texas each came together to talk about it. For sure he would. He had already in the first inning and led the team with 23 -- good for third in the UC Irvine record book.
He didn’t. Instead, he lined a single into center field to score Sparks and give UC Irvine a lead it wouldn’t let go. The hit chased Thornhill after 7.1 innings of work in what would end up being his first loss since April 27 against Oklahoma State.
“I’m surprised they didn't try to squeeze there because that would have been even more momentum that they took the risk,” Garrido said. “They just executed so well in that inning consistently, but I was surprised they didn't squeeze.”
Gillespie joked about why he didn’t.
“There's a rumor that we squeeze. It's a myth,” Gillespie said. “We're trying to live that down. We're a big-inning club. Certainly the squeeze has been important to us. Chris would be up to it. Part of the problem with the squeeze is that you don't always get a pitch to work with, and every once in a while some shrewd dirty rat like Augie might pitch out. It's not just an easy slam-dunk decision to squeeze all the time.”
Jonathan Munoz tacked on the final run of the game with an RBI single to give the Anteaters a three-spot in the top of the eighth. UC Irvine’s Evan Brock closed up shop in a perfect 2.1 innings of work to pick up his ninth win of the season. It was Brock’s first relief appearance of the season after making 16 starts.
“I haven't had much bullpen experience, at least this year, but definitely my adrenaline was pumping [Saturday] -- it was a big game,” Brock said. “I haven't been in that type of situation late in the game in a long time. I mean, it was pretty fun for me, so that definitely got the juices flowing.”
For the 55th consecutive game, a team with a lead heading to the ninth inning kept that lead.
One of the seven batters Brock retired was Texas’ Mark Payton. Needing to get on base to continue his Big 12-record 101-game streak of reaching base, Brock struck out Payton in the ninth inning. Payton finished 0-for-4 with a sac bunt.
“So what? We lost,” Payton said. “It's something I didn't pay attention to. I think a lot of other people paid a lot more attention to it than I did. We lost [Saturday], so that's the end of it.”
On a day with no chance at getting the ball out of TD Ameritrade Park, the bunt was key. Except in the end, the call not to bunt put UC Irvine into the winners’ bracket.