CBB: Aztecs steal regional opener from Gauchos, 4-3

San Diego State’s Steven Pallares stole home with two outs in the eighth inning, lifting the Aztecs to a 4-3 win over UCSB in an opening game of the NCAA Baseball Tournament’s UCSB Regional on Friday at The Diamond in Lake Elsinore.

With two outs and two strikes on Seby Zavala, Pallares took off as UCSB’s Dillon Tate went into his wind-up. The pitch was high, and Pallares slid under the tag of Gaucho catcher Campbell Wear to break a 3-3 tie.

The Aztecs (41-21) advance a winner’s bracket game Saturday at 7 p.m. against Virginia, a 6-1 winner over USC in the earlier game at the ballpark of the San Diego Padres’ Class-A affiliate, the Lake Elsinore Storm.

UCSB (40-16-1) plays an elimination game Saturday at 3 p.m., against USC.

UCSB coach Andrew Checketts was wary of an attempted steal of home by Pallares.

“I was nervous about it until two strikes,” he said. “I could tell he was trying to do it. Once we got to two strikes, I was a little surprised that they did it with a guy with 60 RBIs at the plate. Before then we knew it was coming, but them doing it on two strikes caught us a little off guard.”

Tate didn’t think the Aztecs would try it with two strikes.

“Looking back at it, it caught me off guard and I tried to speed up my delivery a little bit. But if I had to do it over again, I would have tried to hit the batter to get a dead ball and get another chance at that,” he said.

San Diego State coach Mark Martinez said the play was all about finding a way to score against a good pitcher.

“When you’re facing one of the best pitchers in the country, runs are a premium,” he said. “You have to find a way to score runs and I think Steven figured him out. He had a good night with three hits. Once we got him to third base, we made eye contact early and I said ‘Yeah let’s go.’ I think he was questioning me there for a minute. It took him about three pitches to finally go. Luckily for him, (Tate) threw a high pitch and Steven slid in safe. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box in order to beat one of the best in the country. That’s why we did it. We took a gamble and fortunately for us we won.”

Tate, who is projected to be a first-round draft pick, got off to a rough start. He walked the lead-off hitter, Pallares, who moved to third when Danny Sheehan followed with a single. Tate then threw a wild pitch that scored Pallares for the game’s first run. Spencer Thornton hit a two-out single to make it 2-0.

Pallares jumped on a Tate delivery for a two-run homer in the second inning to put the Aztecs up 3-0.

Tate found his groove after that and retired 15 of the next 16 Aztecs.

UCSB, meanwhile, chipped away at the lead against San Diego State starter Bubba Derby. The Gauchos scored a run in the second inning on an infield out and another run in the third on a wild pitch.

UCSB center fielder Andrew Calica tied the score at 3-3 with a RBI single in the fifth. Calica went 4-for-4 with two doubles.

“We struggled a little bit early,” Checketts said. “We were down three, but we did a good job chipping away at it. It was a great college baseball game. I really thought our guys hung in there. You could see a little frustration early, but I felt we were able compose ourselves a little bit and get back in the game.”

But Derby shut the Gauchos down the rest of the way. He retired seven straight after Calica’s seventh-inning single, and struck out pinch hitter Paddy O’Brien to end the game.

“When you go nine innings, everything has to be working for you,”Derby said. “There were a few changeups I left in the zone that they got. But once I was able to locate my changeup and get my slider down, we just tried to keep them of the balance through the game.”

On Derby, Checketts said: “He did a good job. Some of the video that we’ve seen on him, he struggled late in the year with throwing off speed pitches for strikes, but he wasn’t doing that today. He was landing his breaking ball for strikes and his change up was down. We were really trying to lay off his change up and I thought our guys did a fairly good job at that. But when he’s throwing strike after strike, he was pretty tough. He’s a competitive kid. It was a good start. I saw two great pitchers out there battling.”