Before coming to UC Davis, Justin Fitzgerald had never closed a game in his life.
After Tuesday’s performance, no Aggie has ever done it more.
The junior right-hander broke the school’s all-time saves record with the 16th of his career in UC Davis‘ 9-5 victory over No. 13 California at Dobbins Stadium.
“I’ve really tried to go out there and model myself after [Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan] Papelbon,” said Fitzgerald, who pushed his single-season saves record to 12. “You watch him in the World Series, and you really try to go in there and throw strikes for your team and give them a chance to win.“
If the Aggies (31-19) keep this up, Fitzgerald will be pitching in the postseason in no time.
The win was their eighth this season over a ranked opponent and improved their record to 5-3 against Pacific-10 Conference teams.
With Big West Conference series remaining against No. 11 UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge, UC Davis has the next two weekends to put the final touches on its case for an NCAA West Regional at-large bid.
“At this point, if we can win the series against Irvine and Northridge, then I don’t know how they can keep us out,” head coach Rex Peters said.
UC Davis couldn’t be kept off the base paths against Cal. The Aggies had their leadoff hitter reach base in six of eight innings, scoring on five of those occasions.
“We talked a little bit today about throwing the first punch and keep punching all the way through nine innings,” Peters said. “It helps when you get the leadoff hitter on. You can pressure the defense a little bit.“
The first punch came on the first pitch Cal starter Alex Rollin threw. Ryan Royster smacked his team-leading ninth home run over the left field wall to strike first blood, 1-0.
Cal answered right back in the second, with Josh Satin hitting a leadoff homer to center. Brett Jackson followed with a double and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Blake Smith to take a 2-1 lead.
Aggie senior Kevin James followed suit by hitting a leadoff, line-drive single that scraped past the back of Rollin’s knee and rolled into center. After advancing to second on a groundout, the Granite Hills High School product scored on a Grant Bauer single to right to even the game at 2-2.
UC Davis and Cal traded the lead three times before the bottom of the sixth, where the Aggies took it for good.
Senior first baseman Evan Hudson led off with a single, and James doubled to left to put two runners in scoring position with no outs for Matt Dempsey. The senior shortstop knocked Hudson home with an RBI groundout that advanced James to third. Grant Bauer then bunted safely on a suicide squeeze, scoring James to put the Aggies back on top, 6-5.
UC Davis tacked on three more runs over next two innings, and Fitzgerald sealed the deal in 1 1/3 scoreless innings. In all, the bullpen did not allow a run in its 3 1/3 frames of work.
Marco Griffantini (1-0) picked up the win for UC Davis, and Cal reliever Daniel Wolford (2-1) was charged with the loss.
The Aggies will begin their three-game home set against UC Irvine on Friday at 2:30 p.m.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.