UC Irvine Baseball: 'Mighty Mo' wills himself to success

Andrew Morales has literally been playing baseball since before he can remember. But it's the UC Irvine senior pitcher's ability to forget that has helped him achieve a virtually unprecedented level of success.

For the first time in two seasons, covering 27 starts and 31 appearances, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound right-hander sustained a loss in a 9-1 Big West Conference setback Friday to visiting Cal State Fullerton.

Morales allowed five earned runs and eight hits in five innings in by far the least-successful outing of the season. It was most remarkable by its contrast to a two-season standard of excellence that has prompted former UCI All-American and second-year pitching coach Daniel Bibona to declare Morales the best Anteater pitcher ever.

But exercising what he calls player amnesia, the only mental residue remaining from his lone Division I setback — including two landmark seasons at Rio Hondo Community College he is now 40-2 as a collegian — was a tinge of motivation to never let it happen again.

"I didn't give my team a chance to win and that was something I was pretty upset about," Morales said. I could care less about my own stats, but I felt like I kind of failed my [teammates] and that was something that made me hang my head, even though I couldn't hang my head long, because they needed me the next day in the dugout."

His unwillingness to let any outcome affect the determined monotony of his methods this week, truly rings with familiarity, just as each one in a mind-boggling string of dominant outings had also failed to produce any statistical cling.

"Like I tell people after a win, I'm still 0-0 the next day," said Morales, a first-team All-Big West performer as a junior who is a candidate for the conference Pitcher of the Year award this season. He is also a candidate for the Dick Howser and Golden Spikes awards that go to the nation's top player, as well as a finalist for the Senior CLASS award that honors character and leadership as much as ability.

His willingness to recycle any recollection of past performance, he claims, goes both ways. This allows him to erase a defeat or an almost equally rare no-decision as easily as he willfully propels himself beyond the trappings of stardom that he abhors.

"It's new," he said of the aftermath of a his singular Division-I loss, "but I'm definitely not new to adversity, and I've been pretty good at dealing with that. Each game has its little trials of adversity, I guess. When there are runners in scoring position with less than two outs, that's the time you have to buckle down. I feel like that's the situation we are in as a team right now."

The Anteaters (35-19, 15-6 in conference) hold a one-game lead over third-place Long Beach State heading into a regular-season-ending conference series beginning Thursday at Blair Field. The 'Eaters need to win the series to virtually lock up the program's first NCAA Regional berth since 2011. Anything less creates a perilous quest for an at-large bid for a team that is on a five-game conference losing streak and saw its RPI plummet from 26 entering last week to 38 as of Monday.

But Morales, who was a member of a CIF Southern Section champion at South Hills High and whose Rio Hondo teams lost barely more than a dozen games in two seasons, said he is intent on doing all he can to ensure the Long Beach State series opens with a UCI victory.

"There are only a few guys on the team that have experienced the [NCAA] playoffs and that doesn't include myself," Morales said. "I have been to the junior college playoffs and that was a lot of fun. I want to get [to an NCAA Regional] and I will do everything I can to get there. That's the bottom line."

Morales' bottom line at UCI includes a 1.64 career earned-run average with 196 strikeouts in 197 innings, including 111 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings this season. His career walks and hits per innings pitched is 0.95.

Having added 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season, Morales has boosted his fastball to the 92 mph range. But it's his command and willingness to throw any pitch in any count that is most confounding to opposing hitters, who are batting just .183 against him this season.

He said his father persuaded Little League officials in Covina to let him begin playing T-ball when he was 3 1/2 years of age, a distant past he said he has come to know only by the stories told about him by his parents.

"I always wanted to be in the center of the diamond, even in T-ball when there wasn't even a pitcher," Morales said. "I started pitching when I was 6 or 7 and I loved it."

And though he has been playing baseball virtually year-round for well more than a decade — he had only a brief flirtation with soccer, before ditching the pitch for a repertoire of pitches — he said projecting a future beyond high school was difficult, even during his senior year.

"I didn't make the varsity until my junior year, which wasn't a surprise, and even then I only got a couple of starts, with very few innings," Morales said. "But my senior year, I was 8-2. My coach gave me a shot and I ran with it.

"But I was always small [5-10, 145 pounds as a prep senior], so I never even thought of playing baseball in college."

Yet encouraged by a couple of assistant coaches who boosted his confidence, Morales found his way to Rio Hondo, then chose UCI over UC Davis and Cal State Northridge after a 21-1 record in two community college campaigns.

He committed to UCI as a walk-on, he said, though a partial scholarship became available before he began pursuit of a public health degree he is in line to accept in June.

Morales began the 2013 season in the bullpen, but quickly emerged as the Sunday starter. This season, he has shone in the Friday night spotlight.

But no matter how bright his star has risen, a rare combination of humility and confidence shaped by the perspective of his younger sister's cancer scare, as well as an undying work ethic, have enabled Morales to thrust himself into a readily projectable professional future.

"I have always wanted to play [professionally] and I've always wanted the opportunity to play," he said. "But being overlooked is something I kind of got used to. Honestly, right now, I'm just thinking about Long Beach, and taking Long Beach down. But in the long run, playing professional baseball is something new and very, very exciting and I believe it is an actual thing now. It's something I feel really prideful about and something I've worked really hard for.

"I've had people tell me I might be drafted in the first 10 rounds, but that is something I would never put on paper. I don't think anything is guaranteed, still. I wasn't drafted last year, so I'm pretty used to not expecting a call, which is something that I think has worked for me. Coming into this year, I wanted to leave no stone unturned. I didn't want to give them a reason not to draft me. I was in the weight room six days a week and eating right and conditioning [off-season]. It has paid off this year, and I'm not done either. I am going to get bigger and stronger and throw harder. I have always wanted to be the best."

Morales said the best feelings he has had playing baseball are the love and support generated by his 14-year-old sister, Emily.

"She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on Oct. 21, 2011," Morales said. "She's cancer-free now and doing well, but the 2 1/2-year journey is something that I hope no one else has to go through. If she's not the biggest influence on my game, she's one of the top ones. I think me playing baseball served as a distraction for her [during her frequent hospital visits, including one on the eve of Morales' appearance in the 2012 state community college tournament in Bakersfield that put her in tears, because she was concerned that she let her brother down by not being able to attend].

"She has always been my biggest fan, ever since I was little," Morales said. "As an older brother, a little sister can be annoying at times, but once [her illness] set in, I was really able to realize what an amazing person she is. She was sent down from heaven and she is literally the perfect, perfect individual. When she wasn't in the hospital, she was at my games, and when she was in the hospital, she would get play-by-play from my mom, who was receiving text messages from my dad at the game. She put other people before her, when everyone was putting her before us.

"Watching her grow and get better has been a lot of fun for me," Morales said. "And I've always said that if I could never throw another pitch just to have her healthy, I would do it in a heartbeat."

So it turns out, that while he is regularly forgetting his latest outing, good or bad, Morales is remembering something, or someone, after all.

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