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UCI aims to reload

Offense in good hands for Anteaters, who need handful of pitchers to step in for departed stars.

February 16, 2011|By Barry Faulkner, barry.faulkner@latimes.com
(Daily Pilot File…)

While nine of the top 12 hitters from a year ago return, much of the discussion about the 2011 UC Irvine baseball team involves those who are no longer in the clubhouse.

Among the veteran standouts drafted last June were five core seniors who all went to the College World Series in 2007, a Super Regional in 2008, and were on the first UCI team to win a Big West Conference title, play host to a regional and earn the No.1 ranking in 2009. The group consisting of pitchers Danny Bibona, Eric Pettis and Christian Bergman, first baseman Jeff Cusick and catcher Francis Larson, then capped the 2010 season with the program's fifth straight trip to the NCAA Regionals.

But in addition to the aforementioned offensive firepower, fifth-year senior Sean Madigan, who was a freshman All-American in the storybook 2007 season and the lone remnant to that roster, said there is something else that has returned.

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"This is the first time we haven't been ranked in the preseason [top 25] in four years, which is good," said Madigan, who was granted a medical redshirt after sitting out the 2008 campaign with a knee injury and is expected to start in right field when the Anteaters open Friday at home in the first of a scheduled three-game series against Nevada. "I think that's a good thing for us, because we can finally play with that chip on our shoulder because we have to prove ourselves again."

UCI was ranked No. 34 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, and picked to finish second in the Big West, behind heavily favored returning champion Cal State Fullerton.

The proof for this team, is clearly in the lineup, where senior third baseman Brian Hernandez, a first-team All-Big West performer, anchors what figures to be a potent batting order in the No. 3 hole. Hernandez, who is also being called upon to be the team's closer this season, had 44 runs batted in in 2010, when he hit .322 with four home runs and 19 doubles for a squad that finished 39-21, 17-7 and second in the Big West.

Junior first baseman Jordan Leyland and senior left fielder Drew Hillman, who both made the all-regional team after UCI was the last team eliminated by future College World Series finalist UCLA, figure to hit fourth and fifth, respectively, Coach Mike Gillespie said.

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