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UC Irvine mixing old with new

College Baseball

Anteaters return several key components, but will need newcomers to contribute to extend postseason streak.

February 16, 2012|By Barry Faulkner

The alumni games continue to get tougher for the UC Irvine baseball program, which fortified its list of former players after last season's team went 43-18 and was one pitch away from earning a trip to the College World Series.

But after saying goodbye to Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year Matt Summers, Big West Defensive Player of the Year and closer Brian Hernandez and Drew Hillman, who led the team with six home runs and 51 runs batted in, among others, there remains plenty of talent for Hall of Fame Coach Mike Gillespie.

That talent, including first-team all-conference catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, second-team all-conference shortstop D.J. Crumlich, and a pitching staff flush with proven winners, led to a No. 29 ranking in one preseason poll and the No. 2 spot in the Big West coaches' preseason conference predictions.

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Gillespie, in his fifth season after extending the Anteaters' NCAA tournament appearance streak to six, is also counting on a handful of 14 freshmen on the roster to help the 'Eaters continue to be one of the most reliable West Coast contenders.

Three times during the six straight postseason appearances, UCI won a regional. It won the 2007 Super Regional to advance to the College World Series and flirted with two additional Super Regional triumphs, before winding up just shy of Omaha.

Last season, UCI nearly upset No. 1 national seed and host Virginia in the Super Regional, but the Cavaliers rallied for a 3-2 ninth-inning walk-off win in the deciding third game to send UCI home, rather than to the game's biggest showcase.

If this team can make a run at Omaha, it will be with an even greater emphasis on pitching and small ball than recent UCI squads. This would not surprise Anteater supporters already familiar with two-strike bunts, squeeze plays, hidden-ball tricks and team earned-run averages among the nation's elite.

"Pitching really has to be the key," said Gillespie, whose mound men posted a combined 2.93 ERA last season with the help of first-year pitching coach Jason Dietrich and newly regulated bats that limited power..

Junior left-hander Matt Whitehouse, sophomore right-hander Andrew Thurman and senior right-hander Crosby Slaught are the projected weekend starters. Sophomores Evan Brock, Mitch Merten and Phil Ferragamo, as well as junior Kyle Hooper figure to add starting depth.

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