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College Baseball Preview: All-American trio leads unproven 'Eaters

Sparks, Morales and Spencer are elite players surrounded by question marks in 2014.

February 12, 2014|By Barry Faulkner

For more than a decade, the UC Irvine baseball program has prided itself on playing little ball, relying on pitching, defense and just enough offense to compile a record suitable to make the postseason.

But as the Anteaters learned last season, there is a fine line between little ball and too little offense. For the second straight year, UCI failed to make an NCAA Regional in 2013 and those willing to point fingers might cite the 'Eaters 17-18 record in games decided by three or fewer runs. UCI lost seven of its final 10 games that were decided by three or fewer runs, and scored just 14 combined runs in those contests.

There was still plenty of the pitching and defense, which allowed UCI to go 26-6 in games in which it allowed three or fewer runs and hold opposing hitters to a .250 cumulative average. But the 'Eaters managed just seven wins when allowing at least four runs on their way to a 33-22 finish that included a 15-12 mark in the Big West Conference.

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And while returners Taylor Sparks, Andrew Morales and Connor Spencer boast All-American credentials, the lack of proven talent beyond them, particularly on the mound, has many concerned that the postseason drought — which followed a run of six straight trips to the NCAA regionals, three super regionals (2007, 2008 and 2011) and one College World Series appearance (2007) — is apt to continue in 2014.

UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, who guided UCI to the postseason his first four seasons at the helm (an average of 42.2 wins and a .701 winning percentage, contrasted to a 32-win average and a .577 percentage the last two seasons), is operating on a contract that expires after this season. And despite his place in the American Baseball Coaches Assn. Hall of Fame and his 996 victories in 26 seasons as a Division I head coach, the 72-year-old legendary former USC coach acknowledges that another sub-par season may be his last.

The off-season hiring of UCI legend Ben Orloff, who won the Brooks Wallace Award as the nation's top shortstop and was the Big West Conference Player of the Year as a senior in 2009, as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator to replace departed associate head coach Pat Shine, further fuels speculation that the line of succession may already be in place.

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