Following a six-game skid to end the regular season, it was surprising to some and reassuring to the Anteaters when they received an at-large berth into the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Thereafter, the Anteaters embarked upon a string of victories that were unexpected, if not shocking, all the while dramatic and historic. And sophomore starting pitcher Elliot Surrey was there, just as he had been in his days at Crescenta Valley High, providing performances on the mound that were equal parts outstanding, clutch and riveting.
“Just knowing everybody was going to the playoffs starting over, everybody was 0-0,” Surrey said. “Knowing we were one of the final four selected, it was pretty easy to play loose.”
With Surrey collecting a victory and a save in the series, the Anteaters won the Corvallis Regional, defeating UNLV before securing two wins over host Oregon State – the team ranked No. 1 in the nation. Two more wins followed when UCI dispatched Oklahoma State to win the Stillwater Super Regional and move on to the World Series in Omaha, Neb.
So, how does Surrey describe it all?
“It’s pretty surreal,” Surrey said Thursday, a day after UCI arrived in Omaha. “It didn’t really sink in until we got here and got off the bus. We got off and they had a bus for us that says UC Irvine and College World Series on the side.
“They treat you like superstars here.”
Surreal as it all may be, the reality is UCI has arrived in Omaha on the strength of an improbable run in which Surrey has turned in three performances that were just as crucial as they were phenomenal.
“He has been a rock,” Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie told the Daily Pilot. “[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 it’s tough and he's very confident.”
Irvine (40-23) opens up the double-elimination World Series against Texas (43-19) on Saturday at 12 p.m. PST at TD Ameritrade Park. Surrey is likely to get the start in Irvine’s second game Monday against either Louisville or Vanderbilt, as he enters the series with an 8-4 record, a 1.99 earned-run average, 75 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 108 1/3 innings.
Surrey and his fellow Anteaters are making history as just the second UCI squad to make a Division I World Series appearance, having taken their faithful on a roller coaster ride that saw them lose eight of their last nine games in the regular season before advancing to Saturday having now won four of their last five. Having finished fourth in the Big West Conference, Irvine was one of the last four selections in the NCAA postseason field of 64.
“Getting this second chance, you know you don’t get a lot of those in life and we played like that,” said Irvine pitching coach Danny Bibona, whose Anteaters are the only No. 3 seed remaining, with just two No. 2 seeds in the final eight and five No. 1s.
Bibona was a starter on the last – and first – Eaters team to advance to Omaha in 2007, when he was part of a staff that included St. Francis High graduate and current Colorado Rockies pitcher Christian Bergman. A left-hander like Surrey, Bibona was an All-American and two-time Big West Pitcher of the Year.
Considering Bibona’s pedigree and experience, perhaps that’s why Surrey’s ascent to becoming a College World Series team’s No. 2 pitcher boasting spectacular statistics in his sophomore season isn’t all that unexpected.
“I’m very impressed,” Bibona said. “I’m not surprised though.”
For that matter, neither is Phil Torres, the longtime Crescenta Valley High baseball coach who had Surrey on his varsity roster for four seasons.
“Nothing Elliot does ever surprises me,” Torres said.
In his senior season for Torres and the Falcons, Surrey was a dual threat just as he’d been during all four seasons in his Crescenta Valley tenure.
An All-CIF and All-Area first-team selection and the Pacific League co-MVP, he was 6-1 with a 1.11 ERA and an astounding 73-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It culminated a run in which he was an All-CIF selection twice and an All-Area and all-league pick season in and season out.
Despite his impressive numbers this year, Surrey has no individual accolades to claim. Fortunately, that’s an aspect he doesn’t pay too much attention to.
“I don’t really like to look at the numbers, I don’t want to get too big-headed,” Surrey said.
Numbers or not, all-conference and regional honors or not, Surrey really can’t be overlooked after the postseason performance he’s put forth.
“We needed him to do well, honestly, and he has,” said UCI senior catcher Jerry McClanahan, a Bishop Amat product out of Temple City.
Every player and every team follows their own, unique road to Omaha.
For Surrey, it started in La Crescenta, went south to Irvine and before heading east to Nebraska, there was more than one stop in Oregon before a mighty big celebration in Oklahoma.
Success in Corvallis, Ore. is hardly a novel notion for Surrey. He turned in a spectacular summer as a Corvallis Knight for the West Coast League summer collegiate squad and was an All-WCL first-team pick after a 6-1 season with a 1.27 ERA.
Then, on his and the Eaters’ road to Omaha, he stopped back in Corvallis to help shock the NCAA baseball world.
“I actually felt pretty comfortable, because I played summer ball up there,” Surrey said.
Irvine opened up the Corvallis Regional with a 10-3 win over UNLV with Anteaters All-American Andrew Morales getting the start.
Then Surrey was tasked with facing the No. 1 team in the nation – host Oregon State.
What followed was a masterful performance in which he threw seven innings for the upset victory, striking out eight, walking three and giving up just three hits. The Eaters won, 14-2, with Surrey getting charged for both runs after leaving in the eighth.
“With Elliot, it’s all about getting ahead of batters. Once he does that, you know he’s gonna have a good night,” McClanahan said. “And that’s what he did against Oregon State.”
But OSU returned to beat Irvine and force a winner-take-all final. Morales got the short-rest start and went 4 1/3 innings. As the ninth inning rolled around, Irvine was clinging to a 4-2 lead and Surrey was getting to work.
“I knew it was a possibility,” said Surrey of making a relief appearance. “They said that all hands would be on deck.”
Surrey was already up in the pen, but then he saw that the order was getting to its left-handed heavy portion.
“That’s when I started getting hot,” Surrey said.
Then Bibona asked him if he was OK to go.
“I was so fired up to go out there and get the opportunity to get the game,” Surrey said.
Surrey allowed a leadoff single and then a one-out walk before inducing a series-clinching double play.
“It was awesome that he came back on one day’s rest,” Torres said. “And it just shows the confidence coach Gillespie had in him. He probably had 12 guys he could bring in and he went with the lefty with the spectacles to close it out.”
In a span of three games in three days, Surrey had twirled a victory and his first-ever save against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
“For the regional, I thought he was the MVP,” Bibona said. “I told him afterward, ‘Hey, we don’t win that without you.’”
But Surrey was left off the all-regional team, though his latest trip to the hill in Corvallis surely brought with it plenty to take home.
“Winning a Super Regional, that doesn’t happen too often. That only happens to eight teams a year. That’s pretty special,” Surrey said. “Beating Oregon State, though, that’s the highlight of my life so far.”
Surrey also set the stage for Irvine’s sweep of Oklahoma State, spinning seven innings of five-hit ball for the win in the first game of the Super Regional, as the Eaters prevailed, 8-4. Surrey gave up two runs, though neither was earned.
All told in the postseason, he’s 2-0 with a save, boasting a 1.20 ERA over 15 innings, with just nine hits given up.
Though he now finds himself receiving superstar treatment in Omaha, it’s hard to imagine much has changed for the humble and hungry Surrey since his days at Crescenta Valley, his work ethic and fortitude garnering as much praise as his numbers.
“He’s steady,” Torres said. “Even though he’s quiet, he’s a bulldog. He’s gonna compete. We never had to worry about that. Elliot was always gonna compete.”
Said McClanahan: “He’s really composed and just kinda gets after it. He’s a guy that throws a pitch and jumps right back on the bump and throws another one. He competes his butt off out there.”
So Surrey, using all the same tools and lunch-pale mentality that made him a success with the Falcons, is now a force on a College World Series contender.
“I sent coach Gillespie an email the other day saying thanks for taking care of our kid,” Torres said. “They move on, but they’re always your kids.”
Back with Crescenta Valley, Surrey was a kid who was quick to put up and take down banners in the Stengel Field outfield for every game. Now, he’s been doing his share at Irvine’s Cicerone Field.
“We’re not one of those teams where we have the field set up for us. We set it up,” Bibona said. “Surrey’s the first one out there everyday. He’ll set the whole field up by himself if he needs to. He’s not doing it to show something, it’s just because it needs to get done.”
Surrey and the Eaters won’t need to set up anything in Omaha. Now, their Cinderella story is focused simply on taking home a title.
“We’re definitely here to win it,” McClanahan said. “If we play like we have, then we have a good shot to do it.
“Yeah, we’re taking it all in and enjoying it, but we definitely want to come back with a championship.”
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.