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College Baseball Preview:

’Eaters aim for Omaha

BASEBALL: With strong veteran returners and a highly touted offense, UCI bids for return to College World Series.

February 19, 2009|By Barry Faulkner

The veteran core of the UC Irvine baseball team knows what it’s like to get to Omaha and experience the College World Series. Just as importantly, they also know what it’s like to come up tantalizingly short of their game’s ultimate destination.

“Three outs away” is a mantra that consumed many Anteaters fans in the recent off-season, after UCI took a 7-4 lead into the ninth inning of a would-be-clinching Super Regional game at LSU last season, only to see the Tigers rally for a 9-7 win. LSU then sent the ’Eaters packing with a 21-7 trouncing in the decisive third game to advance to Omaha.

And while they say they did not stew on the bitter juices they were forced to ingest in Baton Rouge, the leaders of this year’s squad, who reside up and down the lineup while also highlighting a talented pitching staff, also say there is a hunger this team brings into the season that begins today at Hawaii.

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“I think, as a whole, I’ve never been part of a team that has worked as hard as we have this fall,” said senior shortstop Ben Orloff, who Coach Mike Gillespie as well as each of his teammates acknowledge as the central leadership figure in the clubhouse and on the field. “Every single day after practice, it’s tough to get in the [batting] cages, because, honestly, there are eight to 10 guys every day hitting after practice.”

Junior closer Eric Pettis, a first-team preseason All-American who earned second-team All-American honors as a junior, when he tied the school single-season record with 17 saves, is another who believes experience and talent might form a lethal combination for UCI opponents this season.

“We feel like this is our year,” said Pettis, who, at least initially, will attempt to straddle a closer-starter role. The plan is to use Pettis to close out Friday night games, then have him bounce back to start on Sunday.

“As freshmen, we were touted as a good recruiting class,” Pettis said, “And, even when we were having success the last two years, we were always saying ‘Just wait until next year,’ because we knew there were better things to come.

“And we haven’t taken anything for granted with our preparation and conditioning and all that,” Pettis said. “We’ve worked harder, because we know there is something special out there for us.”

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