The difference between this year’s UC Irvine baseball team and the last two squads has been the hitting. The 2007 College World Series squad boasted experts in small ball and had stellar pitching. The 2008 Super Regional squad played a little small ball, but got a heavy lift from its starting rotation. The bats have been the headline for this year’s top-ranked and Big West Champion team, but it has been the pitching that has put them in position to win day in and day out.
Daniel Bibona, Christian Bergman, Eric Pettis and Crosby Slaught can be credited with much of the success of this under-the-radar pitching staff. Why are they under the radar, you ask? It is because they don’t have the big names that project to future big league talent. Watch any of them, and their games will tell you otherwise.
Junior ace Bibona stepped onto the scene last year when he became the Sunday starter mid-way through last season. His name stood out when he dominated the University of Nebraska in the Lincoln Regional over a then career-high seven innings, and in front over 8,000 Cornhusker fans.
He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but his control is overwhelming. He can place pitches as he pleases, and that ability has allowed him to get in front of hitters in the count early. When he can do that consistently, as he has done all season, opposing teams are in trouble. His numbers don’t lie. He is 10-1 with 2.23 ERA in 13 games. Hitters are only hitting .201 against him and he has 85 strikeouts to 20 walks in 93 innings pitched this season.
What has made him elevate his game even more this season and succeed the last Anteater great Scott Gorgen as the Friday night starter? He attributes it to an atrocious start in fall ball.
“I put a ton of pressure on myself, knowing I was going to be the ace. Things didn’t go my way, so Coach [Ted] Silva told me to pitch how I did last season and not even think about anything else,” Bibona said.
The left-hander has done that and more. The only knock on his game was that he didn’t have the stamina to go late into games last season, and he has pitched at least seven innings in his last nine outings, including his first career complete game against UC Davis last Friday.
Bibona isn’t the only Anteater starter with an ERA below three and with only one loss. Bergman is the junior right-hander who is giving Bibona a run for his money. Bergman has one fewer win than Bibona (9-1) and has a 2.90 ERA. Like Bibona, Bergman pounds the strike zone. That is where the comparisons end.
Bergman won’t strike out many guys, but he is a contact pitcher. He induces grounders and fly balls, and uses the solid defense behind him to his advantage. His fastball has touched the low 90s on the radar gun, but he uses his brain rather than his power to get hitters out. Bibona calls him a “mentality pitcher.” He outsmarts hitters by picking up their tendencies and learning as much as he can from Bibona’s starts and scouting reports.
Last year, Bergman was the Sunday starter until an injury benched him. The coaching staff decided to save his shoulder, and it paid off. He came back as strong and as hungry as ever. He was the mid-week starter and the first arm out of the bullpen. Bergman carried his success to Anchorage, Alaska, where he played for the Anchorage Bucs in the Alaska Baseball League over the summer. It was there that he honed the tools he has today. He was a first-team selection as a starting pitcher and only allowed nine earned runs in 60.2 innings pitched.
Bergman is hungry to go back to the College World Series. He even likes to look back to his start against Oregon State in the CWS imagine how the outcome would have been different if he had the stuff he has today.
While Bibona-Bergman has been the latest and greatest one-two punch combos in Anteater history, Pettis is establishing himself as one of the best closers in the nation. He has 3.86 ERA in 25 appearances, and has even been called on to pitch more than an inning for the Anteaters in close games. He is one of the best in the nation in saves with 16, and he is the most feared pitcher in the UCI bullpen. He has a devastating slider, and when it is working, it’s nearly unstoppable.
Pettis brought his best stuff in 2007 as a starter, however. When former Head Coach Dave Serrano needed a Sunday starter, Pettis, as a freshman, stepped up and wanted the ball. He hasn’t let the ball go since. He was chosen as the closer for his bulldog mentality and nasty stuff by Coach Silva in 2008 and he has excelled at the position. Pettis wants the ball every day, and being the closer gives him that opportunity. Coaches usually like to rest their closers instead of pitching them in more than two consecutive close games, but Pettis isn’t having it.
On game days after long relief appearances by Pettis, coaches put a question mark next to Pettis’ name on that roster to signify that he might not be able to pitch. Pettis then takes a pen and x’s that question mark to show that he wants the ball in his hands again if the opportunity comes.
Pettis hasn’t been perfect, but no one is. The only problem in his game is that he sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him. That is nothing Coach Silva thinks Pettis can’t overcome.
“He is the right guy with the right mentality for the role. [Blown saves] happen in baseball; it’s just part of the game. [Pettis] pitches with a little bit of his emotions on his sleeve. At the end of the day, he is going to give you the best chance to win, and he is going to be great at the next level,” Coach Silva said.
Bibona, Bergman and Pettis were expected to fill the void left by the departing players last year, which left a dire need for a solid Sunday starter for the Anteaters. Slaught was the answer to their prayers.
As a freshman last year, Slaught pitched some relief innings and showed that he was a freshman still learning the ropes. Coach Gillespie has high hopes for Slaught, who has the physique to be looked at more attentively by prospects (6 feet 5 inches, 195 pounds) and he lettered in basketball in high school. He even looks similar to his roommate, Carson Clark, and even jokes that he is better at volleyball than the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Freshman of the Year.
While he hasn’t been as prolific as his roommate, he has provided the arm that the Anteaters so desperately needed. Although his stats won’t catch your eye (4.87 ERA, 61 innings pitched and 13 starts), his progress can be seen by his weekly performances.
“He is a quiet guy who pitched a little soft last year. This year, he has a little fire in him and he is learning how to pitch with more and more experience,” Coach Silva said.
The Santa Barbara native pitched just over 22 innings last season, and is learning more and more with every start. Slaught is taking tips from how the other starters scout their opponents, and above all is gaining more and more confidence in his pitches.
“I start messing up when I don’t correct my mistakes, but the mistakes are what fire me up. I know I have the ability; I just have to be more consistent,” Slaught said.
Bibona, Bergman and Pettis are all proud and pleased with Slaught’s progression and can’t wait to see what he can bring when he puts it all together.
“I feel like he is going to do something really special this season,” Bibona said.
If Slaught continues to improve and the rest continue to do what they are doing, we can all expect something very special happening for Irvine in Omaha, NE in June.