For the last six seasons and seven of the previous eight, the Memorial Day holiday buzz has included the satisfaction and anticipation of involvement in the 64-team NCAA tournament for the UC Irvine baseball team.
This year, however, provided no such climax as the Anteaters were forced to beat UC Davis in the regular-season and Big West Conference finale in order to edge the Aggies, who won the three-game series for the first time against UCI, for sole possession of fourth place.
UCI finished 31-25, 13-11 in conference play, losing five three-game series to Big West opponents, the most since posting an equal number in 2003.
Statistically, the biggest shortcoming was the offense, as the team managed a .274 batting average with 260 runs and eight home runs. Only the 2003 UCI team that hit .253 with 225 runs performed worse in the 11 seasons since the program was revived.
The 2012 numbers reflect the second season of the BBCORE bat standards that have decreased offensive production throughout the NCAA. But they cannot be dismissed.
Four of the top five batting averages were posted by seniors, including Jordan Fox (.322 and a team-best 37 runs batted in) and Christian Ramirez (.324 which lost out to fellow senior D.J. Crumlich for the team batting title by percentage points). Fox and Ramirez finished one-two, respectively, on the team with slugging percentages of .422 and .419. Fox is 5-foot-9 and Ramirez is 5-8. Hardly imposing.
Crumlich, the team's leadoff man and shortstop, led the club with 16 doubles. Crumlich and senior Tommy Reyes shared the team lead with 17 extra-base hits.
In the pitching department, the Anteaters produced sufficiently to generate more success, even though they were decimated by injuries. The team's 3.25 earned-run average was second-best in the school's last 11 seasons.
Kyle Hooper, who was 3-1 with a 1.30 ERA in five starts, missed most of the season with a stress fracture in his right (pitching) elbow.
In addition Matt Whitehouse, who was strong down the stretch in 2011, never got going before injuries shut him down with an 0-2 record in three appearances.
Evan Brock, who looked like a future ace late in the 2010 season, before missing 2011 with a surgically repaired shoulder, started only two games in 18 appearances, which spanned a mere 34 innings. He was 2-1 with a 2.12 ERA, but the 2012 campaign was more about rehabilitation than a resumption of his 2010 prowess.
Sophomore Andrew Thurman, who threw one no-hitter, one one-hitter and had a no-hitter broken up in the ninth inning of a game in which he exited, emerged as the kind of Friday night ace that led to 'Eaters being named Big West Pitcher of the Year in the previous four seasons. Thurman finished 8-3 with a 2.66 ERA in a staff-most 98 innings.
All could return next season for a staff that loses only seniors Crosby Slaught and Nick Hoover.
Coach Mike Gillespie, whose fifth season at the helm ended in his 200th victory at UCI, also has to deal with the possible loss of Pat Shine, the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator who was not with the team for the final 23 games for what school and team officials termed "a personnel matter."
The refusal to comment on whether Shine's absence was the product of a suspension, a termination or any other scenario, renders his future with the program a matter of speculation. His departure in late April, however, could not have helped recruiting and the lack of an announced return can't be spun as anything but a setback for the program.
UCI will lose starters at shortstop (Crumlich), second base (Reyes) first base (Fox) and center field (Ramirez).
Among the positives was the production of freshmen Connor Spencer (.306 with 30 RBIs), Jerry McClanahan (.276 with two homers and 18 RBIs), Chris Rabago (.286 with one homer and 12 RBIs) and Taylor Sparks (a team-best three homers and 12 RBIs).
One can't help but wonder how much the presence of Jordan Leyland and Chris Carlson might have helped the UCI lineup this season.
Leyland, who elected to transfer for his senior season to Azusa Pacific, was the Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year after amassing 22 homers, 41 extra-base hits, 74 RBIs and a .419 batting average in 59 games for the Cougars.
Carlson, an outfielder who flushed out at UCI after spending the 2010 season in the program, was the State Community College Player of the Year at Orange Coast College. He finished his sophomore season at .421 with seven homers and 43 RBIs in 39 games. He is bound for New Mexico State.
Cal State Fullerton defeated Long Beach State on Sunday to claim the Big West title and the conference's automatic berth into an NCAA Regional. But for the first time in 26 years, the Big West will have just one representative in the baseball postseason.
The NCAA tournament field does include OCC product Ryan Dunn, a senior captain and second baseman at Oregon State. Dunn enters the postseason having batted .299 in 56 regular-season games. Dunn, a member of OCC's state championship team in 2009, has seven homers, 34 RBIs and leads the Beavers with 19 doubles. OSU opens play at the LSU Regional on Friday against Belmont.
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