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UCR Baseball Team Knocking On the Door of the Top 25

The helpful folks in the sports information department have put together this useful little roundup of just how much the UCR baseball team is turning heads nationally.

With quality wins over UCLA, Cal, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State, among others, the Highlanders are now in the conversation on many of the polls and rankings. Take a look here.

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First Look at Highlander Hardballers

While the Highlanders hoopsmen have our attention — can they actually peak in Anaheim and become this year’s NCAA sacrificial lamb? — let’s not forget that Spring is around the corner, which means baseball. This year’s team is playing the 11th toughest schedule in the land, according to Baseball America. No surprise there, expect perhaps why it’s slipped to 11th.

Here is the Press Enterprise’s Allan Steele’s sneak peek at the Highlander hardballers. His take? Not quite as green as last season.

Highlanders’ Schedule is Tougher than Yours

Sophomore maestro Joe Kelly clocked two saves as visiting UCR took last weekend’s series against No. 5 UC Irvine. The overall toughness of the Big West Conference no doubt helps UCR’s strength of schedule — allegedly the best in the land.

According to the preview of this weekend’s Big West conference weekend series between UC RIverside and Cal State Northridge — bitter rivals back in the D2 CCAA — the latest set of Strength of Schedule ratings at Boydsworld.com has UC Riverside’s schedule ranked as the toughest in all of Division I College Baseball. (I looked and couldn’t find it at www.boydsworld.com-PW)

From the UCR release: The Highlanders rank ahead of defending national champion Oregon State and current PAC-10 leader Stanford. UCR has played #5 UC Irvine three times, #8 Nebraska four times this season, #21 San Diego twice, #22 Cal State Fullerton and #25 Long Beach State three times. UCR plays #5 UC Irvine once more for a non-conference match-up on May 6th.

That said, they’re well under .500 this season overall, and have their hands full in a Big West conference race that looks to be an all-out dogfight. They currently are tied for 4th with No. 25 Long Beach State.

The Highlanders have retained their propensity to swing above their weight when they play the heavy programs. To wit, they’ve won weekend series against two top-ten teams — UC Irvine when they were No. 5, just last weekend, and Long Beach State, while they occupied the No. 9 slot earlier in the season. They don’t have the consistency of last year’s Big West-winning squad, but if they can turn some of the experience they’ve gained playing the toughest schedule in the land into a second-half surge and sneak into the rankings, they could well find a spot in a regional.

Ace sophomore stopper Joe Kelly is back in the bull pen for Doug Smith, and proved stone-cold in the 9th inning during Sunday’s rubber game win over UCI at Anteater Field — another bit of mo’ upon which the Highlanders can build.

Walk-off Shot Worth the Wait

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It was cold, guv. Too cold for disappointment.

The UC Riverside baseball team’s season opener snuck into the Riverside Sports Complex in between winter storms, ushered along by a biting wind that sent the huddled supporters lining up for hot chocolate and blew the tarps off the bullpen mounds as endless clouds galloped north over the Box Spring Mountains.

Of course it wasn’t cold for the visiting Washington Huskies, in town for a four-game stint in sunny — ha! — So Cal. They’re used to such misery in Seattle. Heck, they were probably hot, suckas.

An early 2-0 UCR lead that had the hearty home crowd giddy was erased in the 5th (4th?) by a two-run UW homer, setting up a second half of the game that was played with trepidation — at least for me. Too close for comfort. Too easy for a good team to manufacture a run or blow it wide open. After enduring this bone-chilling duel, it would be a bitter loss.

In at least three of the subsequent innings, Highlander moundsmen put Huskies on base and got out the jam with clutch pitching. But it felt like a rising tide, with Rivi’s fortifications perilously tested to their limits.

Somehow we ended up in the bottom of the ninth at 2-2, after escaping yet another jam in the top of the inning. UCR quickly racked up two outs, and it looked as if we might be there a while. I shot a look over at the concession stand, thinking about rocking a third hot chocolate, but it was shut tight — the cold, curled steel door quietly mocking us frozen bums, the knackered and harried staff having slipped away when the mob wasn’t looking.

Then there was life. A two-out walk and a man on first. Ben Price stepped into the box, fresh off a humiliating inning-killing pickoff his last time up. But crank up the Bob Marley, mon, ’cause this is redemption song, y’nah?

It was evident soon after the ball left the bat that it was game over. Seriously. Deep and directly in the gap, the outfield had no chance and the base-on-balls easily scored from first. Boo-yaa. Welcome to the 2008 season.

The Huskies and Highlanders ultimately split the four game weekend stand, and UCR then dropped a game to No. 24 Pepperdine. The early read is that the Highlanders may be too young to repeat as Big West champions — the banner looks filthy up on the outfield wall, by the way — but we’ll just have to see what happens, won’t we? Pub Wisdom reckons a healthy pitching rotation down the stretch could be the bridge to lively late-season bats in the hands of cocky world-beaters. Make it so.