Take a look at the final game results for the UC Irvine baseball team and the Los Angeles Lakers, and one will deem each team a failure. The ‘Eaters lost 21-7, a score, which most LSU fans are used to seeing on their Tiger Football Stadium scoreboard. The Lakers lost 131-92 to the Boston Celtics, a score that would probably be seen in mismatched college or high school basketball games.
Although, both teams were obliterated in their final games, the fact that each had unexpectedly successful seasons cannot go unnoticed.
We’ll focus on the ‘Eaters and come back to the Laker comparisons later. UCI was tabbed to finish fourth in the Big West in the preseason rankings. The Anteaters lost a huge core of their historic College World Series team to the major league draft and graduation. Center fielder Ollie Linton, catcher Aaron Lowenstein and shortstop Ben Orloff were the only returning experienced starters in the offense and defense. The pitching staff was depleted after losing starter Wes Etheridge and relievers Dylan Axelrod and Blair Erickson. On top of all that, head coach Dave Serrano and the rest of his coaching staff left for Cal State Fullerton. Considering all this, it looked like the program had come to a halt and that it had returned to mediocrity.
This was not the case. The new-look Anteaters won their first eight games of the regular season, and 19 of their first 22. The ‘Eaters did “rip it up” against non-conference opponents, but they hit rough patches in conference. The Anteaters finished tied for third in the Big West at an unimpressive 14-10 record. The Anteaters’ weaknesses were exposed, and their less talented conference foes like UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and Pacific prevented UCI from sweeping any series. Those losses along with losses to UCLA and San Diego began to gain some doubters for the ‘Eaters. The Anteaters looked like a poor defensive team, the offense was inconsistent and the bullpen was lackluster. The constant shuffling of the line-up was indicative of the lack of certainty about who to put at what position.
The pitching staff was solid for the Anteaters all season. Scott Gorgen was Scott Gorgen. Bryce Stowell got better with experience and his firm mid-90s mph fastball and filthy curveball brought scouts to Anteater Ballpark on a weekly basis. Arguably the biggest surprise of the season was sophomore Daniel Bibona. The Tom Glavine comparisons are correct. Instead of having overpowering stuff like Stowell, he uses his pitches to outsmart batters and keep them off balance at the plate. He finished the season 9-3 with an incredible 3.08 earned run average, which would have been 2.68 had he not had the zero innings, five earned run game against Kansas State. Christian Bergman returned from an injury and provided the arm the ‘Eaters needed in relief, finishing with a 1.94 ERA. Eric Pettis, in his first season as closer, tied for first at UCI with Blair Erickson at 17 saves in one season. His fastball and slider brought him an impressive 2.62 ERA on the season. These five pitchers provided the arms needed to make up for the weak bullpen, which had seven players with ERAs above four on the season.
The Anteaters’ post-season hopes were not solidified, even with an impressive overall record. The conference record was not in its favor, and victories over UCSB in the final two games of their final home stand were integral. In the first of two games, the Anteaters seemed to have finally found themselves. The bats came alive after a controversial call by the home plate umpire that sent Tony Asaro back to the plate after he was allowed to advance to first on an apparent hit by pitch. Asaro singled the very next pitch up the middle and scored two runs. The team was electrified and the crowd was electrified. It was like the 2007 season all over again.
The Anteaters rattled off six straight hits in the next inning to bring the score up to 14-6, and then the bullpen fed off the momentum and recorded rare 2.1 shutout innings by three different pitchers. The Anteaters took the win, and carried the momentum into the Lincoln Regional. UCI pitchers dominated again, most notably Daniel Bibona who pitched eight solid innings in front of over 8,000 Nebraska fans for the 3-2 victory. Bryce Stowell did have his most impressive win of the season against Oral Roberts in the clinching game with a 7.2 innings, zero earned runs, 13 strikeout performance against the potent bats of the Gold Eagles. The Anteaters looked like a new-faced team as they committed zero errors in Nebraska. The ‘Eaters feed off hostile and crowded environments, turning into a different team in the post-season.
The ‘Eaters carried their confidence and momentum to LSU for the Super Regional. They stunned more than 7,000 rowdy LSU fans at Alex Box Stadium with a 11-5 game one victory. They snapped LSU’s 23-game winning streak, which was a Southeastern Conference record. Daniel Bibona took the mound on the next day, and pitched another gem. He pitched 7.1 innings, struck out eight, walked one and allowed three runs. LSU fans were already wishing me good luck in Omaha, and then the unexpected happened. The ‘Eaters were three outs away from the College World Series until shutdown Pettis ran into difficulty finding his control. The rest was history. LSU won in stunning fashion 9-7, and the tides quickly turned. The Anteaters looked like the dominant force that would wreak havoc in Omaha once again, but one unfortunate inning changed everything. The momentum and confidence shifted, and the mentally beat ‘Eaters looked again like the unpolished Anteaters of the late in-conference play, eventually succumbing to the signature bats of the LSU offense in game three.
Take away the last 10 innings of the season, and the Anteaters had an incredible run. Take a look at the accomplishments box in this issue for a list of some of the 2008 Anteaters achievements.
Now about the Laker-UCI baseball comparisons.
Both teams returned with inexperienced players and both teams saw those players step up, especially in the post-season. The Lakers saw players like Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Lamar Odom explode in the Western Conference playoffs. UCI saw Sean Madigan, Jeff Cusick and stud sophomore Casey Stevenson emerge in the post-season. The leaders stepped up and took the lead: Gorgen, Ollie Linton, Aaron Loweinstein and Ben Orloff for the ‘Eaters, and Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher for the Lakers. Both teams caught fire at their respective times and seemed unstoppable. Both were then humbled as they ran into powers like the Tigers and the Celtics. Most importantly, both teams achieved success that far exceeded expectations and both return teams (Orloff has decided to return as shortstop for the Anteaters) that will be as good if not better than last season.
The ‘Eaters and Lakers did come short, but they brought us happiness that we did not expect. They have brought us encouraging futures.
The Lakers and the ‘Eaters seem to be taking the same path. Everyone should jump on both bandwagons.
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