DII Baseball Championship journal: UC San Diego earns spot in Sunday's championship
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas — The third time was the charm from the DII Baseball Championship.
The long-awaited rubber match between UC San Diego and St. Thomas Aquinas started play on Thursday evening. Frankie Moscatiello threw 20 pitches, getting in a bit of a jam.
And then the skies opened.
Hail now. pic.twitter.com/fd861bfk1g— Wayne Cavadi (@UofDWayne) June 2, 2017
The game was postponed until Saturday morning. That start time would be pushed back until 8 p.m. ET Saturday night.
Finally, baseball was played.
As it has since the tournament started, the top of the order delivered early for UC San Diego. Jack Larsen, who walked to lead off the game 28 hours earlier, hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the second to start the scoring. Brandon Shirley followed, picking up his second single of the game, scoring two.
The fourth inning saw the legend that is Giovanni Dingcong grow larger. The big right fielder robbed Tyler Durna of a bases-loaded hit and crushed a home run to left field, cutting the Triton lead to one.
The sixth inning spelled trouble for the Spartans. UCSD has created runs, sometimes the hard way, all week. They’ve done it by getting runners on and forcing plays. Chris Pennell for St. Thomas Aquinas came on to try and help Chad Sinko get out of a bases-loaded jam. He hit the first two batters and then walked another.
The damage was done. The Tritons scored three runs without needing a hit to drive anyone across the plate.
UC San Diego senior Troy Cruz took a tough luck no decision in the first game against St. Thomas Aquinas last Sunday. He tossed seven innings of three-run ball that day. Saturday night he was in Cruz control.
The right-hander went the distance, striking out an impressive 11 Spartans. He was rarely in trouble.
“I was just trying to come in and give my team a chance to win,” Cruz said. “I give a lot of credit to Mike [Palos]. He did a great job behind the plate tonight. Defense behind me, too, was outstanding. You got to give them a lot of credit.”
His batterymate has been quietly one of the biggest pieces in this run. Michael Palos didn't start in Games 1 or 2. Since he has entered the series, he has been tremendous, whether it is a timely walk, big hit, diving catch or calling yet another complete game.
“I don’t really look at it as me trying to be anything more than I am,” Palos said. “My number was called. Unfortunately [Nick Kitzman] was struggling, but that’s just how our team has been the entire year. It hasn’t been one guy, everyone has stepped in and picked up the slack when we needed to. We play for each other. Troy Cruz pitched a hell of a game today, that was awesome. He gave me credit, but he makes my job a lot easier when he’s up there. It’s like a video game. It comes down to me doing what I prepared to do the entire year.”
UC San Diego certainly created itself a nice little rivalry with St. Thomas Aquinas in its week in Grand Prairie. The Tritons won the war this time, but something says this won't be the last time their paths cross.
For STAC, they had a run for the ages.
“We started off the season 9-9," Spartans head coach Scott Muscat said. "It was not going well early in the year. We were 0-2 in the conference. Then we went on a 28-4 run, and the confidence of the team, and some new guys that stepped up there was a lot of confidence there. Then we lost in the conference tournament and I think a lot of people counted us out. We beat the No. 1 team, scored a lot of runs off [Southern New Hampshire] in the last two games and swept the regionals. Then came here and magically won the first game, and a great game against Mesa: 44-17, No. 3 in the nation. It was a great season. We have a good core guys returning, I would not be surprised if we are back.”
The MLB draft is just around the corner. Dingcong has certainly improved his stock on the biggest stage, showcasing his talents this past week in Grand Prairie. This could have very well been the slugger's — who became just the third player in East Coast Conference history with a 20-home run season — final game.
“I’m happy what we did and what we accomplished,” Dingcong said. “When we were 9-9, I told the guys not to worry about Texas. We got to get through this whole season first. When we got here, it was a shocker. We worked every inning, every game and we fought with each other. I just did what I could do for this school.”
UC San Diego has somehow survived. They staved off elimination four times. Despite losing Game 1 and being down by six in the third inning of their second game, something turned for the Tritons.
Perhaps it was the motivation of skipper Eric Newman.
"I think the motivational speech is probably not what you think it was," Newman said, laughing. "It really wasn't much of a speech to be honest. It was more 'Let's keep after it, let's keep on it.' Let's be honest. I didn't throw one pitch, I haven't made one swing, I haven't made one play. It's not about me. These guys did it."
"I think we've been playing so well so we don't have to get another talk like that," Palos added.
Whatever the UC San Diego magic was, it worked. Four wins in five days. Now, all it needs is two more.
Eight days and six teams down in Grand Prairie. This is what we've been waiting for, folks.