STILLWATER — Oklahoma State made itself a master of small ball this season.
UC Irvine went smaller and was more masterful Friday night, the big difference in the Anteaters’ 8-4 win in the Super Regional opener at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium.
Before a sellout crowd of 4,000, Irvine seized initial control of the best-of-3 series by scoring just one of its runs on a ball hit out of the infield.
The Anteaters scored two runs on one infield single, two on wild pitches, one on a squeeze bunt, one on a bases-loaded walk and another on a delayed double steal … with two outs. Irvine finished with five sacrifice bunts and also benefited from two Cowboys errors and two hit batters.
“Give them credit,” said OSU coach Josh Holliday, “they played a good game. They pitched well. They won the middle innings. We had some moments in time that we didn’t handle very well. Part of that is a credit to them for the way they played. But we just need to stay within ourselves. Some moments got away from us there that collectively we’re better than.”
So unsettling was the Anteaters’ applied pressure, OSU starter and ace Jon Perrin uncorked his wild pitches to score back-to-back runs in the fifth — one while attempting an intentional walk.
“They can do some action, bunt, hit-and-run, stuff like that,” Perrin said. “I didn’t really handle it very well tonight, that’s on me. It’s a typical California team. They’re going to do a lot of different things. It’s something we’re going to have to handle better tomorrow.”
Irvine (39-23) sends its ace, Andrew Morales, to the mound Saturday night. Morales, 10-2 and a first-day draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, made two starts in last week’s regional at Oregon State and was pushed back a day.
The Cowboys, ranked as high as No. 3 in the polls, will counter with freshman Tyler Buffett. Game time is 9 p.m.
Irvine played to its personality Friday night.
While the Cowboys boast a combination of long- and small-ball, the Anteaters are built primarily on the little stuff. In 61 games before arriving in Stillwater, they had dropped 82 sacrifice bunts and added 32 sac flies. In one game at Oregon State last week, they squeezed in two runs in the same inning.
As a team, the Anteaters have 12 home runs. OSU’s Zach Fish has 11.
Yet in Game 1, Irvine didn’t need to hit the ball out of the park — or the infield.
After the Cowboys struck for a 1-0 lead in the first, Irvine took a 2-1 lead in the fourth. With runners at second and third with two outs, eight-hole hitter Adam Alcantara grounded a ball up the middle that Cowboys second baseman Tim Arakawa backhanded in the hole. Arakawa had no chance to get the out at first, yet threw anyway, and Irvine’s Kris Paulino sped all the way home from second.
The Anteaters pushed the lead to 5-1 in the fifth, one on a bloop single, the other two on Perrin’s wild tosses to the plate.
The squeeze and the bases-loaded walk made it 7-1 in the sixth, before the two-out delayed steal bumped it to 8-1 in the eighth.
“We need to be a little bit more under control,” Holliday said. “We didn’t see anything necessarily that’s new to us. But we didn’t handle the moment as well as we can. We didn’t play as complete a game as a ball club as we need to.”
OSU, with its 28 come-from-behind wins, made a charge in the eighth, getting a three-run homer from Tanner Krietemeier and loading the bases with one out. But a double play snuffed that rally and the Cowboys went quietly in the ninth, falling to 48-17.
“We showed some fight late, probably made them a hair uncomfortable with the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the eighth,” Holliday said.
With its season on the brink, OSU’s challenge to stay alive starts with Morales, the Big West Pitcher of the Year, who enters a 1.64 earned run average and 128 strikeouts — ranking fourth nationally — in 120 2/3 innings. A senior, Morales was the No. 71 pick of the Cardinals on Thursday night as a supplemental pick following the second round.
Buffett, who has pitched some big games down the stretch, is 2-1 with a 2.94 ERA.
“We knew that we needed to win two ball games coming into this series,” said Cowboys designated hitter Zach Fish. “Going into tomorrow, we know we have to win two. We’re not going to change our mindset.
“We came out on our heels a little bit tonight and they got the first jab. But that’s why we play baseball. There’s two more games. You get an opportunity to come back out tomorrow and play in front of a great crowd.”