College Baseball: 'Eaters battle Texas

UC Irvine baseball coach Mike Gillespie said during Friday's press conference in Omaha that his team is the party crasher among the eight schools in the College World Series.

If that is the case, then the Anteaters (40-23), who upset No. 1 national seed Oregon State to win the Corvallis Regional, then swept Oklahoma State in the Super Regional, are facing the program that can be considered the CWS bouncer.

The Texas Longhorns (43-19) are making their NCAA-record 35th CWS appearance, nearly double the combined trips to Omaha for the other seven teams in the field (18).

Texas is also led by Hall of Fame Coach Augie Garrido, the all-time Division I leader in victories (1,917), who has won five combined national titles with Texas (two) and Cal State Fullerton.

Texas, ranked No. 6 by Collegiate Baseball, two spots ahead of UCI, has 82 CWS victories, tops all-time. It also has five national titles, the last two in 2009 and 2002 under Garrido, who is in his 18th season in Austin.

The Anteaters and Longhorns square off at noon Pacific Time at TD Ameritrade Park in the CWS opener that will be televised on ESPN2.

UCI senior All-American Andrew Morales (11-2 with a 1.53 earned-run average) will oppose Texas senior Nathan Thornhill (6-2, 1.61 ERA) in what lines up to be a battle of small ball, played in the most pitcher-friendly venue in college baseball.

Garrido virtually initiated the West Coast style that elevates the sacrifice bunt to high art.

Gillespie, UCI's own Hall of Famer who is guiding his fifth CWS team in his 20th NCAA tournament appearance and led USC to the 1998 NCAA title, has taken Garrido's penchant for manufacturing runs even further.

"Mike is a lot more daring than I am," Garrido, whose team's 96 sacrifices this season top the nation, eight ahead of No. 2 UCI, said Friday. "He'll push the envelope where I won't. I think that's what kind of separates it. What I mean by that is, the squeeze bunts that [Gillespie] uses and some of the other things that he uses to manufacture runs, goes beyond the types of things that I do. Outside of that, then it's about the same thing."

Morales, whom many believe is the best pitcher in school history and is 21-2 as an Anteater, has allowed three earned runs in 20 1/3 innings in the postseason (a 1.27 ERA), including a five-hit shutout to eliminate Oklahoma State. The Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year was drafted No. 71 overall by the St. Louis Cardinals last week. His 136 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings this season are tied for the national lead and his 1.68 career ERA ranks No. 1 in UCI annals.

Thornhill, drafted in the 13th round by the Philadelphia Phillies, has an ERA of 0.91 in his last five starts.

UCI, which was 2-2 to finish fourth in its only other CWS appearance in 2007, is led offensively by junior first baseman Connor Spencer, whose 88 hits this season are just six shy of the school single-season record. Spencer is hitting a team-best .370 and leads the 'Eaters with 44 runs batted in. The first-team All-Big West performer was drafted in the eighth round by the New York Yankees.

Junior third baseman Taylor Sparks, chosen 58th overall by the Cincinnati Reds, is batting .458 in the postseason, after being moved from the cleanup spot to the top of the batting order. His postseason hot streak, which includes eight runs scored, has lifted his average to .307. He shares the team lead with five homers and has 34 RBIs.

Junior catcher Jerry McClanahan (.320 with 36 RBIs and eight sacrifice flies) was a second-team all-conference honoree, while sophomore designated hitter Jonathan Munoz (.293 with 17 RBIs) was a first-team all-conference pick. Junior right fielder Kris Paulino has five homers and 24 RBIs, including a grand slam in Corvallis.

UCI junior Sam Moore leads the nation with 23 saves and has gained All-American recognition, but has blown his last three save chances and has not recorded a save since May 9. Chosen in the 40th round by the Dodgers, he was not called upon to pitch against Oklahoma State.

UCI junior shortstop Chris Rabago (.252 with 35 runs, 20 sacrifices and 19 RBIs) was drafted in the 13th round by the Colorado Rockies.

Texas' lineup includes senior All-American left fielder Mark Payton (.326), who has reached base in 101 straight games dating back to last season and is 19 for 20 in stolen-base attempts this season. Payton leads the team in hits (78) and RBIs (38). He was drafted in the seventh round by the Yankees.

Texas, with a staff ERA of 2.32 that ranks sixth in the nation, has a 1.15 ERA in the postseason, during which opponents are hitting a paltry .210.

The Longhorns have hit .301 with nine home runs as a team in their last 14 games, averaging just more than five runs per contest during that span. Texas is 26-2 when scoring five runs or more and 39-8 in games in which it has allowed three or fewer runs. Texas has 21 homers this season, nine more than UCI.

Senior designated hitter Madison Carter is 20 for 52 (.385) with a .556 on-base percentage in the postseason, while sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinajosa is 10 for 21 (.476) with a team-best six RBIs in the NCAA Tournament.

UCI is 2-0 all-time against Texas, having won both meetings in the Round Rock Regional in 2007.

The UCI-Texas winner advances to meet the winner of Saturday's second game between Vanderbilt (46-19) and Louisville (50-15) in the winner's bracket semifinal on Monday at 5 p.m. (PT).

In the other four-team bracket that opens on Sunday, TCU (47-16) faces Texas Tech (45-19) and Virginia (49-14) meets Mississippi (46-19). The winners of the two four-team brackets, contested in a double-elimination format, square off in the best-of-three Championship Series that begins June 23.

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