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

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.

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.

"I sure feel [the urgency], I promise you that," Gillespie said as his team prepares to open the season on Friday at 6:30 p.m. in the first of a three-game home nonconference series with Fresno State. "Nobody is unaware of the fact that it has been two years without making the playoffs. It's not a secret how old I am. If that [drought] happens and you're old, well, then suddenly you're too old. There will be a time when it will just get dealt with."

Foremost among the questions Gillespie and his staff are dealing with is the pitching staff anchored by Morales, who was 10-0 with a 1.89 earned-run average as the Sunday starter last season after transferring from Rio Hondo Community College.

Morales, who has put on 25 pounds of muscle for his senior campaign, was first-team All-Big West last season. He will replace Andrew Thurman as the Friday night starter and the added muscle has upped the velocity of his fastball to the 90-92 mph range, Gillespie said.

Gillespie said sophomore Elliot Surrey (1-0 with a 3.95 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, including just two early midweek starts last season) is slated to be the Saturday starter.

The Sunday spot is still a battle between junior transfer Evan Manarino, junior Sam Moore, freshman Michael Martin and returning fifth-year senior Evan Brock.

Manarino, a lefty who was 11-1 with a 1.41 ERA in 15 starts last season at Saddleback Community College (just 81 hits allowed in 115 innings), has the early inside track.

But Moore, slated to be the first man out of the bullpen if needed on Friday and/or Saturday, would start Sunday if not called upon the two previous days. Moore did not record a decision and had a 5.06 ERA last season in 12 appearances covering 10 2/3 innings.

Brock (2-2, 3.20 in 39 1/3 innings last season) is 10-7 with a 2.90 ERA in an injury-plagued career at UCI.

Martin, who battled an arm injury as a high school senior, was 17-5 with 167 strikeouts in 157 innings during a three-year varsity career at Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego.

Gillespie said Moore, who throws a potentially unhittable split-finger fastball, is a gritty competitor who performs beyond his mediocre velocity (84 mph).

Mitch Merten (4-3 with a 5.45 ERA in 28 innings last season) was slated to be the closer, but a balky shoulder has him sidelined indefinitely, Gillespie said.

Senior lefty Jimmy Litchfield (1-0, 1.99 in 31 2/3 innings last season) is 6.3 with a 2.92 ERA and five saves in his career. He inherits the closer role.

The bullpen, which will be without 6-foot-8 senior Phil Ferragamo (academically ineligible), figures to also include freshmen Chris Vargas and Sean Sparling, as well as junior Matt Fielding, a 5-9 junior lefty out of Sierra Community College.

"There are unanswered questions and the need, different than expectation, but the need for guys who haven't done it before to do it," Gillespie said of the unproven pitching staff.

Sparks, the 2013 Big West Co-Player of the Year who earned second-team All-American laurels, has proved himself to be among the most dangerous hitters in the nation. He hit .360 with 10 home runs and 50 runs batted in last season, when he fashioned a.581 slugging percentage.

"He really, truly is a major leaguer," Gillespie said of the 6-4, 225-pounder who won the national Gold Glove award last season for his defense at third base. "He's a great athlete whose agility, range and arm are all good enough to play third base as a pro. The only issue for him is draft-year pressure. But with as many scouts as have been out to see him in preseason workouts, he seems to be handling it fine."

Spencer, a junior first baseman expected to go in the major league draft in June, handles collegiate pitching just fine. He is the reigning Big West batting champion after hitting .373 with 19 doubles and 35 RBIs last season.

Gillespie said with Spencer hitting cleanup, behind Sparks in the No. 3 hole, teams will be less willing to pitch around Sparks. Spencer was second-team all-conference in 2013.

Junior shortstop Chris Rabago along with Sparks and Spencer were the only Anteaters to start all 55 games. Rabago, a vocal team leader, hit .269 with one home run and 27 RBIs last season. Blessed with a cannon arm, he is projected as a pro prospect at catcher.

Jerry McClanahan, a junior catcher, hit .244 with one homer and 17 RBIs in 45 games last season. He is among the proven commodities in the lineup, where he will hit fifth.

Junior Kris Paulino (.184 with nine RBIs in 76 at-bats last season) is slated to bat leadoff and play right field.

Junior Ryan Cooper (.224 with six RBIs in 49 at-bats in 2013) will open the season in left field, taking advantage of a shoulder problem that has sidelined sophomore Grant Palmer (.220 with eight RBIs in 82 at-bats as a freshman).

Gillespie said Evan Cassolato, a redshirt freshman from Cathedral Catholic High, had won the job in center field, where junior Justin Castro (.235 in 17 at-bats in 2013) should also see action.

Also in the outfield mix are freshman A.J. Alcantara, John Brontsema and Alex Guenette, who is coming off ACL surgery last year.

Sophomore Mikey Duarte (.203 with 11 RBIs in 79 at-bats as a freshman), is the starting second baseman.

UCI, which finished in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big West last season, was picked to finish fourth in the nine-team conference. Cal State Fullerton, ranked No. 1 in some national polls, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Barbara, respectively, are picked to finish ahead of the Anteaters.

UCI, which plays its first eight games at home, begins its conference schedule on March 28, playing host to a three-game series with UC Riverside. Cal State Fullerton visits Anteater Ballpark on May 16, 17 and 18.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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