CORVALLIS, Ore -- Texas A&M's baseball team has been on the verge of elimination for more than a month.
The only difference now is that the ledge is clearly defined after Friday's 6-4 loss to UC-Santa Barbara in the first round of the Corvallis Regional at Goss Stadium.
"We've had our backs up against the wall before and here we are again," A&M coach Rob Childress said. "All we are guaranteed is tomorrow and we'll have our hands full."
The Aggies (32-28) played their last 25 games with the cloud of making the NCAA tournament hanging over their head, not knowing what each win or loss would mean to their chances.
The Aggies know they have to beat Texas-San Antonio at 2 p.m. Saturday to extend their season, A&M's first in the Southeastern Conference and seventh straight in the NCAA tournament.
UTSA lost to Oregon State 5-4 in the regional's other first-round game Friday.
Parker Ray (1-1), who didn't have a start until late April, will start for A&M against UTSA's Brock Hartson (9-4).
The Aggies are in the do-or-die situation because of a sloppy start against a Gaucho team that earned its first NCAA regional berth since 2001 by turning early leads into victories.
UCSB (35-23) improved to 31-7 when scoring first this season. On Friday, the Gauchos used five runs in the first four innings to chase A&M ace Daniel Mengden for the shortest outing of his career.
Mengden (8-4) lasted just 3 1/3 innings, giving up five runs (four earned) on six hits and three walks. He struck out three but threw two wild pitches and got called for a balk as he struggled throughout, allowing the leadoff hitter to reach in each inning -- two by walk and the other on Joey Epperson's single to start the top of the third.
"I made a lot of bad pitches, maybe feeling a little fatigued," Mengden said. "I wasn't feeling the greatest. I just didn't do my job that well today and didn't give us a chance in the beginning."
Mengden pitched back-to-back complete games before Friday, the second after four days rest. He had 10 days of rest entering Friday's start and appeared to be out of sorts the entire time.
Twice Childress visited Mengden on the mound with trainer Josh Cohen.
"I just wanted to make sure he was healthy," Childress said. "It's uncharacteristic of Daniel not to have plus-plus command. He's had a great month, put us on his back and done it with pinpoint command and just didn't have it today. I just wanted to make sure he was healthy."
While A&M's top starter struggled on the mound, the Aggie hitters also had a slow start. UCSB starter Austin Pettibone (10-3) kept the Aggies off-balance for the first five innings, and when the Aggies did threaten, Pettibone got himself off the hook by picking off Mikey Reynolds at second base in the third inning.
"With us there is not a lot of margin for error," Childress said. "We have to be good in every facet to have a chance to win, and we weren't ... we didn't get a great start today."
The Gauchos scored one run in the second and two in each of the third and fourth innings to build a 5-1 lead.
"I thought we were really efficient offensively and put some pressure on them," Gaucho coach Andrew Checketts said. "We had some big hits with two strikes."
UCSB took a 1-0 lead in the second when Luke Swenson singled in Tyler Kuresa, who walked to lead off the inning.
In the third, UCSB's Woody Woodward singled home Epperson then scored on center fielder Krey Bratsen's error. Bratsen had to run a long way in left-center field to catch up with Kuresa's hit, and when he got there, the ball popped out of his glove while he was still in full stride.
Bratsen scored in the bottom of the third to cut UCSB's lead to 3-1, reaching when third baseman Marc Venning tripped while setting to throw him out at first on a groundball. Reynolds doubled home Bratsen after Jace Statum's sacrifice bunt.
In the top of the fourth, Swenson walked and scored after two straight singles, the second by Epperson. That chased Mengden, who did not help himself in the inning with a balk and a wild pitch.
"Their offense, once they grab the lead they are like a bunch of piranhas, eat you from the ankles up on the basepaths and their short game," Childress said. "You have to try and get the lead on them to try and slow them down."
A&M had chances to rally late but couldn't get the big two-out hit in three of the final four innings despite having their best hitters at the plate at the right time.
Cole Lankford, who went 3 for 4, singled home Blake Allemand in the sixth to cut UCSB's lead to 5-2. But A&M stranded Lankford and Hunter Melton when Pettibone struck out Troy Stein. Pettibone used offspeed pitches early in the count as Stein worked it full at 3-2, but Stein swung through Pettibone's high fastball to end the inning.
In the eighth, Melton had a chance to deliver a big hit after Allemand was hit by a pitch and Lankford doubled to end Pettibone's day. Melton got ahead 2-0 in the count against reliever Greg Mahle then drilled a ball to dead center field that Cameron Newell ran down to end the inning.
"I put a good swing on it," Melton said. "The ball just didn't carry very well. I thought I got all of it, and the ball just didn't carry over his head. There is not much I can do about that."
Left-handed reliever Matt Kent kept the Aggies in the game by allowing just one hit over 4 1/3 innings -- though the one hit proved costly.
With two outs in the top of the eighth, Swenson reached on an infield hit, then stole second. Kyle Martin relieved Kent and caught Swenson off the bag on a pickoff play, but the Aggies couldn't tag out Swenson when Lankford's throw forced Reynolds to stretch before he could put his glove on the Gaucho right fielder as he raced back into second base.
Marc Venning then hit a triple to drive in Swenson for a 6-2 lead.
Stein and Logan Taylor singled to open the ninth, forcing UCSB to bring in closer Dylan Hecht. He struck out Brandon Wood but surrendered singles to Bratson and Statum. Bratsen's shot over the shortstop's head drove in Stein, and Statum knocked in Taylor to cut UCSB's lead to 6-4.
Newell bobbled Statum's single to allow Bratsen to reach third and Statum second with just one out.
Ryan Clark, a defensive replacement at third, made a diving catch of Reynolds' foul ball for the second out. Then after fighting off a tough pitch, Allemand watched strike three to end the game.
"To win a game [from behind], you've got to get big hits," Childress said. "We made a run at them in the ninth, had two guys at the plate that we wanted but just couldn't get a key hit."
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!