2012’s graduating class left room for new talent to prove themselves behind the plate.
If anything can be taken away from the men’s baseball’s 2012 season, it’s that failure is necessary for success. The ’Eaters finished last season with a 31-25 record, marking their ninth consecutive season of 30 games or more wins; however, the team finished fourth in the Big West Conference and failed to make the NCAA postseason for the first time since the 2005 season. The Anteaters showed promise prior to the season, but were unable to overcome injuries that eventually took a toll on the team’s pitching staff and propelled some unexpected players into the lineup.
One of those key injuries for the Anteaters was the loss of senior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, who in 2011 was selected to the all-conference first-team; awarded the American Baseball Coaches Association Gold Glove; led the nation in limiting runners to a 43 percent success rate; and was named the NCAA Regional All-Tournament Most Outstanding Player. He returns for his fifth and final year as an Anteater after redshirting in 2012.
“[Shaeffer] is a key guy, for all the obvious reason,” Head Coach Mike Gillespie said. “He is the veteran on the team and we’re lucky to have him. He would have been gone [to the MLB draft] this year if it was not for his injury.”
Shaeffer is expected to be the anchor of the Anteaters’ defense and is projected to hit in the middle of the lineup. The catcher hit .388 his freshman season, but saw a decrease in his numbers the next two seasons. He will look to bounce back and be the leader for this UC Irvine team that houses only three senior position players this season.
“My biggest goal for this year is to get back to what I know I could do at the plate,” Shaeffer said. “Last couple years I’ve struggled hitting. I just want to get back to making hard contact and really using the entire field.”
The Anteaters’ bad luck last season might be the silver lining for what they have this season. Shaeffer’s absence left a huge hole in the Anteater lineup, but it forced Gillespie to rely on his freshman players to step up.
Taylor Sparks, Connor Spencer, Jerry McClanahan, Chris Rabago and Kris Paulino, all freshmen in 2012, are among the players who saw some time in their first season and expected to see significant time in their sophomore season.
“[All] those guys all got to play in their first year and did OK,” Gillespie said. “It’s time to get better. It’s time to become the guys.”
Sparks will be the starting third baseman for the second consecutive year. He hit a middling .202 from the plate and struck out 44 times as a freshman, but led the team in home runs. Over the summer, Sparks was a standout with the Wenatchee AppleSox of the West Coast League, where he led the league with nine home runs and batted .388. He will bat at the middle of the lineup this season after spending the majority of his first year towards the bottom.
“This summer really helped me with timing and rhythm,” Sparks, who admitted he had trouble adjusting to collegiate pitching in his first year, said. “I’m taking the game slower and seeing the ball a lot better. It’s helped me cut down on my swings and misses.”
“I believe it was an important experience for him,” Gillespie said. “It did a lot for his development and a lot for his confidence.”
Next to Sparks in the lineup will likely be fellow sophomore Connor Spencer, who impressed in his debut season with a .306 average and 30 runs batted in. Spencer will man the designated hitter position, but should see some time at first base on occasion. Jerry McClanahan, another sophomore, will also see time as a DH and as a catcher. McClanahan hit .276 his first season and has earned more playing time. Between McClanahan, Shaeffer and Spencer, they will handle catcher, first base and DH for the Anteaters.
The rest of the infield is the biggest concern for the Anteaters. In 2012, seniors D.J. Crumlich and Tommy Reyes anchored the middle infield. With their departure, it’s uncertain who will replace their production at the plate and defense on the field.
One player who has impressed at shortstop thus far is sophomore Chris Rabago. Rabago spent some time behind the plate in his first year, but has the ability to play the infield. Another option at shortstop will be freshman Mikey Duarte, a 5-foot-11 infield out of Redondo Beach.
Second baseman will likely be played by senior Jeff Stephens or sophomore Kris Paulino. Stephens started in the outfield for the Anteaters in 2012, but may make the transition to the infield because of the lack of experience on this team. Rabago, Stephens and Paulino will all be candidates to be the lead-off hitter.
In the outfield, incoming transfer Dominique Taylor will lead the Anteaters. Taylor, a six-foot-one centerfielder out of Salt Lake Community College, has impressed with his range in the outfield and his power at the plate. Joining him in the outfield will most likely be fifth-year senior Scott Gottschling and sophomore Ryan Cooper — both saw playing time in 2012. Another player that has the potential to see time in the outfield is freshman Jordan Morrison, a left-handed batter that impressed this off-season.
With not a lot of experience in the lineup, there are a lot of questions and uncertainty regarding this team offensively. Fortunately for Irvine, they boast one of the strongest pitching staff in collegiate baseball. They will rely heavily on their pitchers to keep them close in games.