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Contreras Awakens Before He Destructs : College baseball: Northridge pitcher stops Santa Barbara, 7-6, leaving two baserunners in ninth.


GOLETA — Marco Contreras looked like a commuter who nodded off at the wheel.

He woke up at that terrifying instant when the car either careens into a ditch or the driver yanks it back onto the road. Either way, with Contreras, it's often quite a trip.

The senior right-hander weathered a last-gasp threat in the bottom of the ninth Friday as Cal State Northridge hung on to beat UC Santa Barbara, 7-6, in a nonconference game at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.

Santa Barbara (4-14) scored once in the ninth and had runners at first and third with two out when Contreras retired Doug Smaldino on a well-stroked liner to center fielder Joey Arnold.

"As soon as I saw that it was going to Joey, I felt pretty good about it," Contreras said.

Pretty good, it should be noted, is a rung below darn good on the had-it-in-the-bag scale. But then, with Contreras, it's usually a white-knuckle ride, though he always sticks around to see the finish.

Contreras (2-3) has completed his five starts. Four were decided by one run, the other by two.

Had it not been for the timely handiwork of shortstop Chad Thornhill, Northridge and Contreras might have been saddled with another tough defeat. Contreras had retired 13 of 15 batters when, with one out and the bases empty in the ninth, John Minton sent a nasty, twisting grounder past the mound.

Thornhill charged, fielded with a bare hand and shot down Minton.

"You don't think about barehanding the ball," Thornhill said. "It's just reactive."

Reaction to the play at the time was low-key. Yet Contreras--who allowed five earned runs and eight hits--then walked Brett Hardy and surrendered a pinch-single to David Willis. When Peter Muro slapped a single through the right side to bring Santa Barbara within 7-6, it was obvious how big Thornhill's play actually was.

"A real big play," said Northridge Coach Bill Kernen, who chooses his superlatives carefully. "Play of the game. A great play, a tough play."

He owed Contreras a good turn. Thornhill's fielding error in the third started a key Santa Barbara rally. Three players already had driven in runs as the Matadors (7-9) jumped to a 4-0 lead off right-hander Jared Janke (1-3), but it didn't hold up long.

After Thornhill's error opened the third, Santa Barbara loaded the bases. Smaldino then launched a triple into the gap in right-center and scored moments later on a groundout to tie the score, 4-4.

Arnold gave Northridge a 5-4 lead in the fourth on a sacrifice fly and Keyaan Cook made it a two-run edge with a run-scoring groundout two batters later.

After the seventh run: seat belt time.

"We're still fighting that self-destruct syndrome," Kernen said. "One of these days. . . ."

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