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  • Aaron Lambert / The Asscoated Press

    Sacramento State third baseman Will Soto, top, makes a crucial tag out of Arizona State’s Drew Stankiewicz in the ninth.

  • Aaron Lambert / The Associated Press

    Sacramento State starter Brennan Leitao gave up just five hits in seven innings Saturday against Arizona State.

Sac State baseball lives to play another day at Cal Poly Regional

Published: Saturday, May. 31, 2014 - 11:08 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 1, 2014 - 9:47 am

It’s one thing to show up, hang around a bit, play some baseball and leave town better for the experience.

It’s an entirely different matter if you’re Sacramento State, new to the NCAA Division I playoff fun, and you extend a sudden season of promise at the expense of a traditional powerhouse while emphatically elevating the team profile.

Scoring twice in the fifth, three times in the eighth and twisting and turning while things got chippy right to the final out, the Hornets stung Arizona State 5-4 to remain alive in an elimination contest in the Cal Poly Regional on Saturday afternoon at Baggett Stadium.

The Hornets took turns delivering. Nathan Lukes drove in three runs, Scotty Burcham scored twice, and ace Brennan Leitao pitched seven strong innings. Dane Fujinaka provided a crucial at-bat and some emotional fire, and Alex Palsha moved to 6-1 by earning the victory in relief as the Hornets made history. On the same campus that Sac State played its last Division II contest in 1989, the Hornets earned their first D-I playoff victory. And now they’re greedy for more.

The Hornets (40-23) play today in another elimination game at Baggett against Cal Poly, which lost to Pepperdine 2-1. Regardless of what happens now, the Sac State program has served notice that it is not an easy out.

John Smith and Terry Wanless sat in the stands again Saturday, sun-drenched in Hornets’ green, applauding every run that coach Reggie Christiansen frantically waved in from the third-base box. Smith coached the Hornets for 32 seasons, reaching the 1988 D-II title game and ushering the program into the D-I era in 1990. He hired Christiansen as an associate head coach in 2009, strongly endorsed by Wanless, the retiring Sac State athletic director who said the Hornets are capable of this showing.

“It’s absolutely awesome what we’ve done,” Christiansen said. “Definitely an exciting day. Knocking off a perennial power, we believed we could do it. Now others can start to believe.”

Sac State beat national No. 4 Oregon State earlier this season at Raley Field, won the Western Athletic Conference to earn an automatic NCAA bid and pushed national No. 5 Cal Poly in a 4-2 loss on Friday. To put the ASU victory in deeper perspective, consider that the Sun Devils came in with 37 NCAA playoff appearances to their résumé with 19 regional titles, 22 College World Series appearances and five titles. Arizona State (33-24) has 166 playoff victories, third most in national history, and it has won 30 or more games a remarkable 52 consecutive seasons.

Sac State is embracing Playoff Victory No. 1, using it as a launching pad.

“They’re a good club, scrappy, play hard,” ASU coach Tim Esmay said.

That played out in full view to an announced crowd of 2,152 as the Hornets refused to buckle to tradition or the moment. David Del Grande drove in Rhys Hoskins for a 3-2 lead in the eighth with a single, and there was near-chaos after Will Soto slid into Sun Devils catcher Brian Serven at the plate, an out.

Arizona State players argued that Soto slid with his spikes too high, though Esmay later said, “That’s guys playing hard. I was a catcher and those things happen.”

Still, Hornets emotional leader Fujinaka, a catcher, took umbrage to an ASU player who barked at the Hornets. Christiansen and first-base coach Steve Holm raced over to pull Fujinaka away from brewing tension.

Fukinaka then drove in Del Grande with a single up the middle for a 4-2 lead as the Hornets sent nine men to the plate. Lukes drew a bases-loaded walk, scoring Burcham for a 5-2 lead.

“Dane had a huge at-bat,” Christiansen said. “He’s our emotional ball. He wants to win.”

Still, the Hornets had to sweat this one out. Sun Devils slugger R.J. Ybarra cut it to 5-4 in the top of the ninth with a towering home run over the “385” sign in left-center. A moment later, ASU shortstop Drew Stankiewicz threw a deliberate elbow into Fujunaka on a rundown between third and home. Palsha then struck out Trever Allen looking to end it, and the Hornets rejoiced.

“We could definitely feel (the stress), but we were trying not to show it,” Lukes said. “With our arms, we’re always in it. We trust Palsha. He’s been there all year.”

Sac State might have gone with closer Sutter McLoughlin, but Christiansen said the 6-foot-5 power pitcher was “a little tender,” adding, “We really have two closers.” He anticipates McLoughlin will be ready today, if needed.

So, two games in, and a 1-1 Hornets showing. The Hornets had to win here, Christiansen stressed.

“No question,” he said. “Friday night was tough, losing to Cal Poly. But we didn’t get off the bus just to show we can compete. We had to win. We had a great chance to win, and we have a great chance (today). We’re not done.”

Read more articles by Joe Davidson

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