Best in the West

Erik Jepsen/Guardian

The UCSD baseball team’s season has been nothing short of magical. It bagged the California Collegiate Athletic Association regular-season title, took home the conference tournament crown, currently owns the No. 1 national ranking in Division-II and earned several individual honors.

After they won CCAA Tournament on May 8 — securing their second consecutive championship — the No. 1 Tritons proved they are nowhere near finished raking in the accolades.

“The CCAA tournament was really exciting, and it was a great way to start off our playoff run,” senior pitcher Kirby St. John said. “The atmosphere and competition was what we’ve come to expect from playoffs.”

UCSD traveled to Stockton, Calif., on Thursday, and beat No. 29 Chico State 8-5 in its first game of the tournament. The Tritons cruised to victory as junior starter Tim Shibuya pitched seven innings of two-run ball, earning him his school-record-tying eleventh win of the year.

The Triton offense jumped on Chico early with a five-run first inning. Freshman designated hitter Danny Susdorf led the team, going three-for-five with two runs scored, two runs batted in and a home run. Senior closer Daniel Simmons finished off the Wildcats, sending off the four hitters he faced in order, striking out two of them and booking UCSD’s spot in the semifinals.

Susdorf, who has had a breakout freshman year, said his late-season success at the plate is thanks to improvements in his mental maturation and self confidence.

“My approach lately is just to be as relaxed as possible at the plate,” Susdorf said. “At the beginning of the season, I’d get anxious for my at-bats, and that would be my downfall. Now I just step up to the plate and trust my preparation, knowing that nobody has worked harder than I have.”

Up next for the Tritons was a three-game battle against No. 25 Cal State Dominguez Hills, where they fought for a spot in the NCAA Division-II West Regional Championship.

In Friday’s game, the Tritons and Toros battled to an eight inning 4-4 stalemate, before UCSD’s offense exploded to life. In the top half of the ninth, senior shortstop Vance Albitz set the table with a single. Junior outfielder Kyle Saul then hustled for a double on a hit to center field, putting two men on base with no outs for the Tritons. After junior outfielder Aaron Bauman grounded out, the Toros intentionally walked Gregorich to load the bases for junior third baseman Evan Kehoe. Kehoe then dropped a bunt that advanced the runners and scored Albitz for a 5-4 lead, with all runners safe on the play. Susdorf then blasted a base-clearing, three-run double, giving UCSD the 8-4 win.

With two games remaining in the series, all Triton hope for a conference title and regional playoff berth hinged on Saturday’s high-pressure, double-elimination doubleheader.

In Game One, the UCSD offense had no answer to a Toro four-run fourth inning. Scoring just one run in both the fifth and sixth innings wasn’t enough to even the score, and two more late-game Toro runs negated a Triton run in the seventh, sealing a 6-3 Toro victory. The loss left the Tritons in a high-stakes, one-game championship playoff with the Toros — with the conference tournament title and a birth in the NCAA Western Regionals at stake.

As the team’s national championship ambitions hung in the balance, O’Brien entrusted senior starting right-hander Kirby St. John to start the championship game on the mound.

However, St. John said the pressure had little effect on his mental preparation and execution.

“I just felt really relaxed and confident as I was warming up,” St. John said. “I did my best to maintain those feelings throughout the game.”

He did not disappoint. Through nine innings, St. John held the Toros to just three earned runs on seven hits. He said his solid performance could be attributed to the run support provided by the Triton offense.

“The team did a great job of piling on runs and playing good defense,” St. John said. “[It] helped me focus on just minimizing any threats they posed.”

The Triton hitters responded to the Game One loss by combining for 12 hits, eight runs, seven RBIs and two home runs in Game Two. Saul had three hits and three runs, Bauman finished three-for-five with two RBIs — including his eighth home run of the year. In addition Gregorich had four hits, including a pair of doubles, and Kehoe went two-for-four with three RBIs and his eighth home run. With the 8-3 win, UCSD claimed its third CCAA Tournament championship in school history.

“Our pitchers did a great job holding the other team’s offenses in check while our position players did a great job putting runs up on the scoreboard,” senior catcher Kellen Lee said. “Kirby St. John — one of our senior leaders — threw a great game on Saturday in the final game. From the moment he took the mound, everyone knew that he was bringing his ‘A’ game. That was a big-time performance in a big-time game.”

The Sunday following their victory in Stockton, the UCSD baseball team was officially named the NCAA West Regional’s No. 1 seed. The four-team NCAA West Regional, set to take place at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., from May 13 to May 16, will cast the Tritons into a first-round regional matchup against fourth-seed Hawaii Pacific — the Pacific West Conference champions.

Susdorf said the Tritons won’t be changing their practice routine even though they have no prior experience playing against their upcoming opposition from Hawaii.

“I’m sure the way we will prepare for Hawaii Pacific is just by practicing how we normally practice,” Susdorf said. “I mean, it’s been successful, so why change it up?”

St. John said the team’s preparation will depend on what they learn about Hawaii Pacific in the days leading up to the May 13 game.

“This week, with the short turnaround between CCAA and regionals, we are focusing on re-energizing ourselves and having a few really solid, detail-oriented practices,” St. John said. “We haven’t found out much about Hawaii Pacific yet, but I’m sure we will be hearing more in the next couple of days.”

The game’s first pitch will be thrown Thursday at 2 p.m. in Compton, Calif. Cal State Dominguez Hills faces No. 3-seeded Chico State in the second game of the double-elimination tournament.The winner of the NCAA West Regional will advance to Cary, N. Car., to participate in the eight-team NCAA National Finals.

“We need to play our game the way we know how, and the result will take care of itself,” Lee said. “Throughout the entire season, we have realized that our biggest opponent is ourself, and that when we are not successful, it is due to beating ourselves. We just need to stay relaxed and composed on offense, defense and the mound — because that’s when we are at our best.”

Readers can contact Cameron Tillisch at [email protected]

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