University of San Francisco pitcher Riley Ornido delivers a pitch in the first inning against Portland on March 15, 2019. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco opens St. Mary’s series with late rally, win

USF Dons baseball scores a series-opening win against Gaels ace Ken Waldichuk

BENEDETTI DIAMOND — College baseball games on Friday typically pit top starters against each other, and a multitude of Major League scouts that came out to San Francisco on Friday afternoon to see Riley Ornido and St. Mary’s Ken Waldichuk match zeros.

Ultimately, it was Ornido and the University of San Francisco that came out on top, pushing across a pair of runs in the eighth against reliever Michael Hobbs to win the series opener, 2-0.

“That’s what you expect on a Friday in conference play with Waldichuk and Ornido pitching,” said Dons head coach Nino Giarratano.

After tallying just three hits over seven innings against Waldichuk, a 6-foot-4 lefty who struck out seven, San Francisco got a single to left from Tyler Villaroman with one out to start the decisive rally.

On a day where extra bases were hard to come by thanks to tight outfield play, Villaroman managed to go from first to third on a Jack Winkler single, then scored on a single by Riley Helland. A diving stop by Gaels second baseman Gio Diaz deep in the hole kept Helland to an infield single and held Winkler at second, but the second run came around to score on a Jonathan Allen base hit.

“I’ve had a few situations similar to that not go my way, so I’ve had to push through it,” Helland said. “It’s good to get that one.”

That was more than enough offense for Joey Steele, as the Dons’ closer got his first win of the year by pitching both the eighth and ninth in relief of Ornido. Steele did give up a two-out infield hit to Eddie Haus, but he got one of the Gaels’ top hitters, Kevin Milam, to ground into a game-ending force out.

Though Ornido ended up with no decision on the day, it was his ability to wiggle out of jams that allowed San Francisco (19-14, 8-5 West Coast Conference) to battle and ultimately win the series opener. He allowed two runners in the first and St. Mary’s (20-13, 6-4) loaded the bases with two outs in the third, but he retired Ryan Novis both times to get out unscathed.

The Gaels also had two baserunners in the fifth and even got a pair of doubles off the high net wall in right field in the sixth, but JC Santini had to hold and wait until Bryce Willits’ ball hit off the mesh, meaning he could only advance to third. Ornido got Conor Thane to hit a shallow fly to left, and got some help from Allen, who made a sliding catch. He then got Diaz to ground out softly to end the threat.

Allen wasn’t the only Dons outfielder to make a tremendous defensive play in a key situation, as Villaroman ran down Novis’ fly to deep right-center in the top of the third. Not only did San Francisco make the flashy plays, but the Dons made the routine ones as well, playing errorless baseball for a fifth consecutive game.

For his final act, Ornido recorded the last three of his seven strikeouts in the seventh inning, ensuring a one-out walk to Milam and wild pitch would do no harm.

“I’m kinda hard on him, but I don’t think he was extremely sharp with the fastball,” Giarratano said of his ace. “If he sharpens up the fastball, he can get deeper in the game. He’s that good.”

Waldichuk faced six fewer batters over his seven innings, seeing 26 men to Ornido’s 32, but the Dons were able to work the count and get the southpaw up to 118 pitches and force Saint Mary’s coach Eric Valenzuela into his bullpen.

The only times Waldichuk had to get out of a jam with multiple baserunners came against the top of the San Francisco order. Riki Urata singled in the third and reached on an error in the fifth, but the lefty escaped both times. With Ornido on the mound, though, the Dons offense didn’t have to panic.

“We don’t have to push early if we don’t score,” Helland said. “Just like that, we can sneak a couple in and win the game.”

It’s a win that gives San Francisco both leverage and confidence heading into the rest of the weekend.

“Tomorrow we can come out, play relaxed and try to bury them,” Helland added. “It’s great to win on Friday.”

Considering the talent the Gaels will have on the mound the next two days between Tyler Thornton and Carlos Lomeli, plus Milam’s ability to jump in and toe the rubber, it’s an especially valuable win.

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