At the heart of the optimism surrounding UC Irvine baseball in 2013 is the center of the diamond.
At the center of skepticism circulating around the Anteaters this spring is the middle of the defense.
How both play out figure to be central factors in whether Coach Mike Gillespie's program finds itself in the middle of the postseason it missed out on last season for the first time in seven years.
Clearly, there is no middle ground when it comes to the crossroads faced by the 'Eaters this season. They can either earn a return to relevance on the national stage, or continue to fade toward the periphery.
"There are some things we know we like and some things we're worried about," said Gillespie, 72, who enters his sixth season after signing an offseason extension that places him at the helm through 2014. "I think it's a group that can be successful, we just have some things to worry about and figure out and solve."
Foremost among the mysteries is the middle of the infield, about which Gillespie said he has as much apprehension as he has had in a quarter century as a Division I head coach. Gillespie, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Assn. Hall of Fame, enters 2012 with 967 career Division I victories.
"I'm actually disappointed to say that in my years [including 16 as head man at College of the Canyons], it has been very rare that any team I've been involved with that had a money defender at second base, third base and shortstop," Gillespie said. "I've had some premier college infielders, but rarely three guys on the same team. But this is the most concern [about infield defense] that I can ever remember having."
Questions remain about who will start at shortstop, third base and second base and Gillespie deems junior center fielder Dominique Taylor, a transfer from Salt Lake City Community College, an athletic, though raw defender.
There is strength behind the plate, where fifth-year senior Ronnie Shaeffer won the collegiate Gold Glove award in 2011 and sophomore Jerry McClanahan is considered a pro prospect.
But if a veteran pitching staff led by first-team All-Big West Conference junior Andrew Thurman is to achieve its potential, infield ground balls must be handled with consistent success.
Thurman, who was 8-3 with a 2.66 earned-run average in a 2012 campaign that included a no-hitter against Long Beach State, is 12-6 with a 3.17 ERA in two collegiate seasons. He helped the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox reach the Cape Cod League championship series last summer and, after being virtually shut down in the fall, drew nearly three-dozen professional scouts to a preseason showing in late January.
"I think it is believable that he will be a third- or fourth-round draft pick," said Gillespie, who had seen an Anteater win Big West Pitcher of the Year laurels four straight seasons prior to last year. "He's one of the guys they are all coming out to see."
Thurman, who struck out 69 in 98 innings last season, fanned 49 in 39 innings in the Cape, thanks largely to a newly developed cut fastball.
"The thing that has made him better is maturity," Gillespie said of Thurman, who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in a victory over Cal State Fullerton last season. "We'll use the cutter to go with a real good curve and a real good change. And his overall command is better."
Junior Matt Whitehouse is the Saturday starter, with junior Evan Brock and senior Kyle Hooper also bolstering a starting rotation that boasts depth and experience.
Whitehouse, a left-hander who was 4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in 12 starts in 2011, redshirted last season due to injuries that limited him to just 13 innings. He is healthy now and poised to confound hitters with his blend of four pitches, highlighted by his changeup.
Brock, who blossomed toward the end of his initial season in 2010 before sitting out 2011 with shoulder surgery that limited his workload last season, will open the season as the Sunday starter when the 'Eaters play host to Baylor in a three-game nonconference series that begins Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Brock was 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA as a freshman in 2010, when he struck out 64 in 63 innings and limited foes to a .162 batting average.
He made 18 appearances last season, including only two starts, and battled to recapture his top-notch change. Still, he was 2-1 with a 2.12 ERA and Gillespie said his change has now returned to 2010 form.
Hooper, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-hander, opened last season with a 3-0 record in 23 innings, in which he allowed one earned run, 11 hits and struck out 25. He eventually forfeited his stats (3-1 with a 1.30 ERA in 27 2/3 innings) to take a medical redshirt after sustaining a stress fracture in his pitching elbow.
Hooper was 3-0 with a 4.06 ERA as a sophomore in 2011.
Another candidate to start is junior Andrew Morales, who was 21-1 with a 2.42 ERA in two seasons at Rio Hondo Community College. He was 12-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 2012, when he was named State Pitcher of the Year.
Senior Mitch Merten could also see some spot starts.
Senior Race Parmenter (eight saves with a 2.28 ERA last season) is the closer for a bullpen that includes Merten, junior lefty Jimmy Litchfield, junior Phil Ferragamo (suspended the first six games for violating team rules), as well as sophomore Sam Moore and freshmen Elliot Surrey, a left-hander, and Josh Bornstein.
Sophomore Connor Spencer is the leading hitter among the returners (.306 with 30 runs batted in), from a team that lost its top three hitters and four of its top five. Spencer will see time at first base and designated hitter, Gillespie said.
Shaeffer, who redshirted last season after breaking a finger in the 11th game, could be deployed at catcher, first base or at DH, said Gillespie, who noted McClanahan (.276 with two homers and 18 RBIs in 98 at-bats last season) has similar versatility.
Sophomore Taylor Sparks was named Top Prospect in the West Coast summer league by Baseball America last summer, after hitting .385 with 10 home runs in 156 at-bats for the Wenatchee (Wash.) Apple Sox. The 6-4, 215-pounder who hit .202 with a team-best three homers and drove in 18 runs last season, will start at either shortstop or third base. Sparks struck out 44 times in 124 at-bats as a freshman.
Chris Rabago, a catcher and outfielder last season, is slated to play either third or short in 2013. Junior Dillon Moyer, who struggled offensively in two seasons at UCI, was expected to take over at shortstop, where Ben Orloff and D.J. Crumlich had played with distinction the last six combined seasons. But Moyer transferred to UC San Diego.
Senior Jeff Stephens (.288 with 20 RBIs last season) and sophomore Chris Paulino (225 with seven RBIs in 2012) are candidates to take over for Tommy Reyes at second base. But Gillespie said freshman Mikey Duarte could also see time there.
In the outfield, Taylor, who had 151 hits, 104 RBIs and 56 steals in his community college career, is a dynamic prospect in center. "We were surprised and he was shocked when he wasn't drafted last year," Gillespie said.
Gillespie said senior Scott Gottschling (204 in 152 career at-bats, but coming off an outstanding fall) figures to start at one corner outfield spot, with either Stephens or Paulino manning the other.
Freshman Jordan Morrison, freshman Jonathan Herkins, a whiz at bunting, and sophomore Ryan Cooper add depth in the outfield, while Gillespie said freshman Grant Palmer, a former football and baseball standout at El Segundo High, could emerge with an infield role.
UCI, coming off a 31-25 season (it had not lost more games in a season since a 21-35 campaign in 2003) is ranked No. 30 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 33 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Assn. The Anteaters were picked to finish second in the Big West, behind Cal State Fullerton.
UCI, which plays 12 of its first 13 and 16 of its first 20 games at Anteater Ballpark, opens Big West play on March 28 at UC Riverside. Its annual rivalry series with Cal State Fullerton is May 17-19 at the Titans' diamond.
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun