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Riverside Makes Its Case Known

May 05, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Having done what few thought it could this season, the UC Riverside baseball team still found that recognition anywhere was difficult to attain.

With No. 1-ranked Cal State Fullerton coming to the Riverside Sports Center over the weekend, the spotlight shined brightly on the Highlanders. They made quite an impression by sweeping three games and knocking the Titans out of first place in the Big West Conference.

Using a 14-hit attack, Riverside (36-12, 11-4) knocked out Titan ace Wes Littleton early in a 13-3 victory Friday as catcher Brian Emmons had three hits and drove in four runs. The Highlanders came back with a 4-3 win Saturday night as leadoff hitter Brian Wahlbrink homered and drove in a run with a single, and Matt Cunningham doubled, tripled and scored twice.

The Highlanders finished the sweep with a 5-1 victory Sunday behind Julio Fernandez's eight-hitter. Riverside became the first team to win consecutive games against Fullerton and figures to break into the top 25 for the first time since moving to Division I two years ago.

"Obviously beating the No. 1 team in the nation is a big thing but every game is important for us," Riverside Coach Jack Smitheran said. "I have so much respect for [Titan Coach] George [Horton] and his program. We'll accept whatever accolades come our way but very quickly we'll move on and take care of our business."

Jaymie Torres (9-1) survived 14 hits by the Titans and used 128 pitches Friday in pitching a complete game. On Saturday, A.J. Shappi held Fullerton to three runs in 6 2/3 innings and got some dynamite relief work by Chad Decker to hold on and improve to 10-1.

As Decker got Richie Burgos on a grounder for the final out, the Highlanders rushed the field with the excitement of a playoff victory.

"We had to come in here and play well," Wahlbrink said. "We know we don't have the name that Long Beach or Fullerton has across the country. This is big for us."

Horton is a firm believer in the Highlanders.

"I'm a voter on the coaches' poll and I voted for them being a top 25 team before this series," Horton said. "They're totally deserving of being in the rankings."

Fifth-ranked Long Beach State (32-14, 12-3) took advantage of Fullerton's rough weekend, jumping into first with a three-game sweep at Pacific. The 49ers continue to improve on offense, while starters Abe Alvarez, Jered Weaver and Cesar Ramos dominated the Tigers.

USC's troubles against Stanford continued with three home losses to the Pacific 10 Conference-leading Cardinal. Ninth-ranked Stanford (31-14, 13-5) scored the most runs by an opponent at Dedeaux Field in a 22-10 victory Saturday.

In a Sunday doubleheader, the Cardinal had 16 hits in an 8-3 win and got two homers and six runs batted in from Ryan Garko in an 8-3 victory to finish the sweep. The Trojans (25-22, 9-9), who had won 10 of 12 heading into the series, are 6-19 against Stanford over the last four years.

"They are good," USC Coach Mike Gillespie said. "They are really legitimately good on offense. I certainly felt we would be very, very competitive in this series."

UCLA (22-26, 7-8) took two of three Pac-10 home games against Oregon State. Pepperdine (31-17, 19-5) grabbed control of the Coast Division in the West Coast Conference by sweeping Santa Clara. UC Irvine (18-28, 7-8) took two of three from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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