Like his fastball, Elliot Surrey is most often under the radar.
But the left-hander widely known as a soft-tosser, has rapidly become one of the surprising UC Irvine baseball team's most important players.
In three appearances during the Anteaters' postseason run to the College World Series that opens against Texas on Saturday in Omaha, Neb., the sensational sophomore has two victories and a save. He has posted a 1.20 earned-run average and allowed just nine hits in 15 innings.
And while those numbers are colossal, those close to the UCI program will note that they are not too far off of the impressive performance Surrey has turned in all season. He posted a 1.83 ERA in eight Big West Conference starts and enters the College World Series with a season-low 1.99 ERA, an 8-4 record, and the aforementioned save in his only relief appearance.
"He has been a rock," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the team's No. 2 starter, who has become the second half of a potent one-two pitching punch led by senior All-American and Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year Andrew Morales. "[Surrey] has been very consistently good and, in the biggest games, he has been at his best. He's poised, tough and he's not afraid. He likes it when its tough and he's very confident."
Confidence is apparent in the grim visage Surrey projects from the mound. His steely eyes glare through unassuming glasses, directing toward opposing hitters a determination that borders on disdain.
The confidence, though largely organic, has been fortified by monotonous success. It was less apparent last season, when the three-time All-CIF Southern Section performer out of Crescenta Valley High pitched just 13 2/3 innings and was 1-0 with a 3.95 ERA as a freshman.
He posted a 1.27 ERA in nearly 57 innings for the Corvallis Knights over the summer and was named first-team All-West Coast League. But his sophomore year began with tumult.
An appendectomy sidelined Surrey nearly his entire fall campaign and just weeks before the season opener, he was buckled by the loss of his mother, Maryn, who died of cancer.
"His first start [in the season-opening series against Fresno State on Feb. 15], he only went four innings [throwing just 53 pitches] because he was on a pitch count," said Daniel Bibona, the UCI pitching coach. "After the good summer he had, it would have been good for him to hit the ground running and build on that confidence by practicing against a good Division I team. But he pitched maybe 10 innings all fall and in January. So, what he has done this season has been awesome to see."
Awesome, perhaps, but also clearly under-appreciated by most.
Surrey did not even receive so much as honorable mention in the all-conference voting. And despite posting a win and a save to help UCI win the Corvallis Regional, twice topping No. 1 national seed Oregon State in the process, Surrey did not get enough votes from media members in attendance to make the all-regional team.
But Gillespie is among those who have not failed to properly acknowledge Surrey's contribution.
"He has been real, real, very, very important for us, absolutely," Gillespie said.
Surrey, whose fastball tops out at 84 mph, but relies on location and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance, said his successful sophomore season began with a parting conversation with then-senior Matt Whitehouse last summer.
"A lot of people compared my pitching style to his and he told me that he only pitched three innings his freshman year, before becoming a starter as a sophomore," Surrey said. "[Whitehouse] talked a lot about the importance of confidence and, over the summer, my coaches up in Corvallis told me that confidence is big in college baseball, especially for a guy like me who is not lights out and does not throw 95 mph. Dealing with some frustration as a freshman, that kind of changes your mindset and, mentally, you become a little bit stronger."
Surrey has allowed four hits or fewer in seven starts this season, including just three hits in the May 31 win at Oregon State in which he struck out eight in seven innings. He tossed a four-hit shutout at home against Grand Canyon on March 22, his only complete game.
In the Super Regional-opening win at Oklahoma State on Sunday, he allowed five hits and two runs, both unearned, in seven innings.
"I really don't think about that," Surrey said of his lack of formal recognition this season. "I go out there to play for my team and for the fun of it, not necessarily for all the awards. Even the thought that people think I should be in the conversation [for all-conference and all-regional honors] is humbling. And I think it will be maybe a little motivation for next year."
Bibona related a story that reveals the kind of confidence that Surrey now possesses.
"He's the ultimate competitor," Surrey said. "Going into that final game at Oregon State, we told our pitchers that it was an all-hands-on-deck situation," Bibona said. "And I told Elliot that if he felt good, he was someone that needed to be available. He said he felt fine and I reminded him that it was 'all hands.' He said, 'No Coach, I just need is my left hand.' When I went down to the bullpen in the eighth inning and I asked him if he wanted the ball. He said, 'Absolutely!' and I said, 'All right, you're in.'"
With Surrey in the forefront, UCI, which made its only previous trip to Omaha in 2007, is back in the brightest national spotlight. And, scheduled to start the Anteaters' second CWS game, Surrey will be, rightfully his teammates and coaches would suggest, at the center of that spotlight.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun