On a full count in the bottom of the seventh inning, redshirt freshman first baseman JT Schwartz slapped a ball to short left field.
Charging in was the UC Riverside left fielder Cole Pofek who tried for a diving grab. He took a tumble, and held up his glove with the ball inside, the Highlanders fans cheering near the first-base dugout.
But as UCLA fans stood up in protest and pointed to the ground, the third-base umpire made the same gesture – signaling that the ball had hit the ground and that UCLA had its go-ahead run.
“If it hit the ground, it barely hit the ground,” said coach John Savage. “I thought it was a really good play by the left fielder. But fortunately for us, the ball must have touched and it got us two runs. Tough play.”
In his first collegiate game, Schwartz’s single would go on to score the winning run for No. 14 UCLA baseball (1-0) in its opening game against UCR (0-1). All four of the Bruins’ runs came on two-out hits, with junior outfielder Garrett Mitchell and freshman infielder Michael Curialle scoring on the Schwartz hit.
All of the UCLA runs on the night were batted in by freshmen – two by Schwartz and two Curialle.
“I was pretty fired up,” Schwartz said. “The freshmen are going to be huge this year. We have a lot of young talent. I think you saw tonight we had a lot of younger guys step up – especially (Curialle) and (freshman designated hitter) Josh (Hahn) – it’s good to see we have a lot of young talent that’s ready to go.”
It was the Highlanders who were the first to crack the scoreboard in the top of the third inning. Pofek launched a ball over the right-center field wall, bringing home center fielder Travis Bohall who had singled on the play before.
Junior right-hander Zach Pettway and the Bruins managed to escape the half-inning without further damage, however, as UCR’s next batter grounded one to Curialle on a close play at first.
The Bruins couldn’t answer back in the bottom of the third, going down in order to bring the Highlanders’ middle of the order to the plate in the fourth. The leadoff batter singled for the Highlanders’ fourth hit of the night, but Pettway bounced back to retire the next three batters.
With two men on base in the bottom of the fourth, sophomore catcher Noah Cardenas hit a high fly-ball down the left-field line. UCLA fans were up on their feet, but the ball died at the warning track as Pofek tracked the ball down for a running catch.
“There’s a lot of games last year where we were down after four or five innings,” Savage said. “It’s not a high school game, it’s a nine-inning game.”
The Bruins would have to wait for their tying runs, however, as they stranded two in the inning when Hahn grounded out to the pitcher covering.
But the Bruins wouldn’t be kept off the scoreboard for long, as UCLA pulled even in the fifth inning and didn’t look back.
With two outs, Mitchell was hit by a pitch, bringing up Curialle. And on a 2-1 count, Curialle took a swing. The ball cracked off his bat, flying into the air. Giving chase, the Highlanders’ center fielder had a look, but the ball cleared the wall and the game was tied.
“Two out hits, they put daggers in pitchers,” Curialle said. “We really preach two-out and two-strike hitting, they’re hard to do – but they’re daggers to pitchers. It felt really nice to tie the game.”
Following their two-run third inning, the Highlanders didn’t score another time, with UCLA pitchers giving up only four hits for the rest of the night.
After UCLA had taken its lead in the bottom of the seventh, junior relief pitcher Holden Powell entered in the eighth inning with one out to go, striking out the next Highlander batter on an 0-2 count. Powell returned for the ninth and struck out two of the four batters he faced to seal the game.
“The characteristics of our program are pitching and defense,” Savage said. “Today we won the game with pitching and defense. It’s tough to score runs at Jackie (Robinson Stadium) at night. A hit here (or) a play here could decide the game, and that’s what happened.”