The depth in UC Irvine’s bench is like an AM/PM advertisement: “Too much good stuff.”
It’s a wonderful problem to have, but in games when the Anteaters are in dire need of some runs, it’s frustrating that there isn’t always room for the surplus of potent bats.
When the season began, Head Coach Mike Gillespie and Assistant Coach Pat Shine would shuffle the corner outfielders nearly every game—rotating between Dillon Bell, Sean Madigan, Tony Asaro and Brock Bardeen. It was hard for the coaches to establish who had earned the job, because they would all get hot at different times.
Madigan had the most playing time of the four last year, and when he launched a 400-foot homerun against Hawaii earlier this season, he looked to have the hot hand. However, Bardeen made it impossible to keep his bat on the bench when he hit a decisive two-run homer against Florida International in the Arizona State Tournament. As a result, he was in the lineup for the next four games, and he responded.
Bardeen hit .429 in the following four games, including five RBI, a stretch in which the Anteaters went 3-1. However, they lost the following game 4-2 against Cal Poly, and Bardeen was absent from the starting lineup.
Of course, it isn’t fair to suggest that the Anteaters certainly would have supplied two more runs had they had their hot bat in the lineup, but it was frustrating only having Bardeen available to pinch hit.
Needless to say, the coaches weren’t oblivious to Bardeen’s hot streak. It’s just that they’re well aware of the deep talent on their bench. Case in point: Asaro and Bell.
Despite Bardeen’s offensive barrage, it doesn’t do the team any good letting quality hitters sit on the bench for extended periods of time. Like Bardeen, Asaro and Bell are time bombs waiting to go off—and go off they did.
Asaro had his best audition at USC back in March. Gillespie said he wasn’t even the intended starter that day, but as luck would have it, Asaro made his way into the order after a last-second lineup adjustment. A minor injury to one of the starters allowed Asaro to get slotted as the ninth hitter in the lineup. Batting ninth proved to be a blessing in disguise.
The Trojans didn’t assume UCI’s number-nine hitter to have uber-power potential, but they were well aware by the day’s end. Asaro launched two doubles and recorded a career-high four RBI. His first double narrowly missed being a three run homer to left-center field.
As impressive as he was, it was too hard to embed him in the starting lineup each night with the talent surrounding him—but it would be exciting to look at Asaro’s numbers if he started in every game. He’s currently second on the team with four home runs, and he’s had just 67 at bats—the equivalent of roughly 15 complete games.
There’s no question he’s made the most of his chances whenever they come to him. After having just four at bats in the previous three games, Asaro saved the Anteaters’ game versus UCLA as he hit a solo home run and drove in two runs in the 6-5 victory. The following day he wasn’t in the starting lineup, but when his name was called to pinch-hit, he made the most of it. He blasted a two-run homer in the ninth to break the game open for UCI in its win over Long Beach.
It’s hard to imagine that Asaro isn’t an automatic starter in the lineup (granted, he’s started the last six games), but Madigan and Bardeen aren’t the only ones he’s competing with.
Dillon Bell is a player who doesn’t need to provide immediate results to show he has incredible potential. He’s a strongly-built, left-handed hitter with a perfectly compact swing. Even when he strikes out, he manages to make it look good—not an easy thing to do.
While Bell didn’t get off to a blistering start in the beginning of the season, the coaches didn’t give up on the sophomore, and it paid off in the series against New Mexico. Bell accounted for six hits, two home runs and eight RBI in the Anteaters’ three-game sweep. His production forced the coaching staff to act accordingly—Bell has hit third in the order every game since. His season totals indicate he should be hitting third every game. Bell is currently hitting .361 with three home runs, 15 RBI in just 72 at bats. What’s more impressive is his .569 slugging percentage and the 420 on-base-percentage he’s sporting.
Unfortunately, the coaches don’t have a crystal ball to see which of their corner outfielders are going to spark the offense, but it’s comforting to always have game-changing power available to pinch-hit at the very least.
A surplus of power hitters is never a problem for a coaching staff, but everything would be much easier if the Anteaters could hit with 10 men in the lineup.