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UCI sets sights on Omaha

Anteaters, with many veterans, including eight from 2007 CWS team, are reigning Big West champions.

February 18, 2010|By Barry Faulkner

Members of the UC Irvine baseball program open the 2010 season tonight with a target on their back, a chip on their shoulder and a number on their chest.

The target refers to being the reigning Big West Conference champions after claiming the program’s first crown last season with a 22-2 Big West record. There is also the matter of having been ranked No. 1 the final six weeks of the regular season and earning the school’s first home NCAA Regional.

The chip on their shoulder relates to the way 2009 ended, as Virginia eliminated the Anteaters to advance from the Irvine Regional and finalize UCI’s record at 45-15.

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There are also a handful of players not selected in the Major League Draft, or selected in the late rounds, who believe they have something to prove about the viability of their professional futures.

The number on their chest has to do with a popular T-shirt worn by the players for the first time this year, with 1,558 centered on its front. The figure represents the distance in miles from Irvine to Omaha, where the top eight teams will convene in June for the final College World Series to be held at historic Rosenblatt Stadium.

A much more tangible element residing in the UCI clubhouse is experienced, talented players, including eight who lived the thrill of competing in Omaha as members of the ’Eaters’ 2007 CWS squad.

Gillespie, in his third season at Irvine after 20 years at the USC helm, said this is the most experienced team he has ever had, including his 1998 national championship team at USC.

“When you have a junior-senior team, you really count your blessings,” said Gillespie, the 2009 Big West Coach of the Year who was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Assn. Hall of Fame in the off-season. “[The veterans] are poised, they don’t get rattled and their skills have improved. They’re just better players.”

Few teams figure to have better starting pitching. UCI’s weekend rotation consists of All-Americans Danny Bibona, Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis.

Bibona was the Big West Pitcher of the Year as a junior, when he went 12-1 with a staff-best 2.63 earned-run average. The left-hander struck out 108 in 106 innings, before being drafted in the 16th round by the St. Louis Cardinals. He’ll start tonight against Loyola Marymount at 6.

Bergman, the Saturday starter, was 9-3 with a 3.50 ERA last season. He was a second-team All-Big West selection last season.

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