Faulkner: Gillespie calling the shots

The second leg of a thoroughly surprising three-pronged postseason run, left UC Irvine baseball coach Mike Gillespie with only a shallow whisper of a voice on Tuesday. But the American Baseball Coaches Assn. Hall of Famer, who earned his 1,000th career Division I victory earlier this season and will make his fifth coaching appearance in the College World Series that begins Saturday, had regained his usual resonant eloquence by Friday in Omaha.

Sitting at the podium at TD Ameritrade Park with counterparts from Texas, Vanderbilt and Louisville, Gillespie clearly became an informed media's go-to quote source, even upstaging the typically captivating Augie Garrido.

It is fitting that Gillespie, 74, in his seventh season at UCI after 20 momentous campaigns at USC, where he guided the Trojans to the 1998 NCAA crown as well as a runner-up finish in 1995, is once again basking in the spotlight of the sport's biggest stage.

That Gillespie, who was the starting left fielder for the 1962 USC team that claimed the national championship in Omaha, is there again this season, surely reflects the single greatest coaching job of his legendary career.

UCI doesn't so much beat teams as it aggravates them into submission, scratching out runs with the ferocity of a cornered marsupial, while pitching and defending with a frugality that mirrors the mid-major program's paltry budget.

It's execution, beyond talent, that sustains these 'Eaters.

Coming off two seasons in which UCI failed to make an NCAA Regional, with what appeared to be minimal established talent (outside of 2013 All-Americans Andrew Morales and Taylor Sparks, Big West batting champion Connor Spencer, as well as returning starters Jerry McClanahan and Chris Rabago), Spencer said Gillespie began his preseason address by telling his players they were going to go 5-55.

This prediction — strictly for motivational effect — aside, expectations for 2014 were as dour as they had been since UCI resurrected the program before the 2003 season.

Yet employing what Gillespie is fond of calling "strategery," as well as supreme pitching and modest, though timely hitting, UCI beat No. 1 national seed Oregon State twice to win the Corvallis Regional. The same team that lost its final eight Big West Conference games and was among the last four admitted to the 64-team field, then pillaged the village in Stillwater, sweeping Super Regional host Oklahoma State to advance to Omaha.

Garrido acknowledged Gillespie's brazen offensive approach Friday, and first-year UCI assistant Ben Orloff, who played his final two seasons at UCI for Gillespie in 2008 and 2009 after helping the Anteaters reach Omaha in 2007 under Dave Serrano, also has no trouble expressing his admiration of the Czar of Zot.

"He has a wealth of knowledge and he remembers everything," Orloff said earlier this season. "And he is fearless calling a game. He's the best. It's crazy to talk to other coaches, and hear the [reverence with which] they speak of him. It's easy to take for granted when we are around it every day, but it's kind of eye-opening to be around when other people are talking about him. I remember talking with Morgan Ensberg [a former USC standout, who, like Orloff, played in the Houston Astros organization], who said 95% of what he knew in baseball, he learned from Skip."

Daniel Bibona, another former UCI All-American in his second season as the Anteaters' pitching coach, said a good deal of the fun the last two weeks was making Gillespie giddy.

"He's excited [to be back in Omaha, where he had not been since 2001]," Bibona said. "I think after the [clinching win at Oklahoma State], it was kind of like a dream to him. After we hugged and celebrated with everyone, we got back to the hotel and he asked me 'How did we get the last out?' I think he was just so gooned out, he didn't know what happened."

Sophomore pitcher Elliot Surrey said Gillespie's supreme wisdom instills confidence in his players.

"He has so much experience," said Surrey, who has two wins and a save in three postseason appearances. "I'm not even sure how many times he has been to Omaha, but I know he won there as a player and a coach, so he knows what it takes to win. We have a lot of trust in him and we have a lot of faith in the calls that he will make. If he calls for a two-strike squeeze bunt, we're going to buy into that, because we know that if we execute, it's going to help our team win."

•UCI, the last Big West Conference team to earn a CWS win (eliminating Arizona State, before falling to eventual champion Oregon State in 2007), is the first Big West representative in Omaha since Cal State Fullerton went 0-2 in 2009. The four-season CWS drought was the longest in conference history.

Big West teams, spearheaded by four-time national champion Cal State Fullerton, have won at least one game in 13 of the 17 previous seasons they competed in Omaha.

•UCI is the first Big West team to play in 24,000-seat TD Ameritrade Park, which replaced historic Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium as the College World Series venue after the 2010 season.

And Gillespie said, just as Rosenblatt did, the new site inspires awe from players visiting for the first time.

"There's no question that [UCI players] are dazzled by this ballpark," Gillespie said. "They are loving it and they are excited by it. I think we'd all be stunned if that was not the case, and I'm good with that. It would be difficult to believe, if they weren't really drinking it all in and they are.

"And naturally, I'm concerned that once we see the burnt orange on the other side of the field [Saturday at noon] and the numbers of people in the stands, that they can harness their emotions. But I'm going to trust that they really do know who they are and that once the game starts, they will be able to settle down and deal with it, and play to the level that they are capable of playing."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad