UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie was understandably concerned his team might be a little tired. After traveling to Corvallis, Ore., for an NCAA baseball regional and requiring four games in four days to advance to a Super Regional, the Anteaters didn't arrive home until 5 p.m. Tuesday after a late game the previous night.
And the bus taking the team to the airport for its next destination, Stillwater, Okla., was scheduled to leave only 13 hours later.
But when Gillespie boarded, he found his group wide awake, energized and ready to go.
He should have known.
"This group of players has been very, very unusual in my experience in that there's an unbelievable energy about this group, with camaraderie," Gillespie said in a telephone interview. "…They really get on fire around each other."
Irvine (38-23) opens a best-of-three-games Super Regional at Oklahoma State (48-16) on Friday at 6:30 p.m. PDT. The winner advances to the eight-team College World Series, which begins the following week. Pepperdine, the only other Southland team still competing, opens a Super Regional against Texas Christian in Forth Worth on Saturday.
There was some concern Irvine might not even make the 64-team regional field. Losing eight of nine games to close the regular season, even in a conference as good as the Big West, cast some doubt. And then Irvine was placed at Oregon State, which was the tournament's top-seeded team overall.
The way it turned out, though, the decision to include the Anteaters seemed like a no-brainer. Irvine won the first two games of its double-elimination bracket by a combined 24-5 score, then, after losing to Oregon State on Sunday, the Anteaters bounced back for a 4-2 win to advance.
"We knew we belonged here, we just didn't know that it would happen," Gillespie said. "There's no running from the arithmetic that we lost eight out of nine, but in losing to Cal Poly, and [Cal State] Fullerton, who got hot, and Long Beach [State], who got good, we lost to three really good teams. In five of those eight losses, we were ahead in the eighth inning. … it's not like we were playing awful."
Now Irvine gets Oklahoma State, which, like the Anteaters, has ridden its pitching all season. The Cowboys' rotation has three starters with sub-3.00 earned-run averages, including senior ace Vince Wheeland, who is 10-0 with a 1.53 ERA. Closer Brendan McCurry, another senior, is 5-0 with 19 saves and a 0.39 ERA.
Normally, Irvine's ace, senior Andrew Morales, would be the starter opening a series, but because he started both Friday's and Monday's regional games, he will pitch in Saturday's second game. Freshman Elliot Surrey, who also pitched Monday but threw just 17 pitches out of the bullpen, will be Friday's starter.
A challenge? Sure. Impossible?
With this group, Gillespie knows better.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun