UC Irvine’s Cinderella story came to a close as the ‘Eaters fell short of their improbable run to the College World Series in Omaha. The ‘Eaters finished off the season with their second College World Series appearance since the programs revival back in 2002. This run marked the ‘Eaters fifth postseason appearance under Coach Mike Gillespie’s seven year tenure here at UCI. This impressive streak to the College World Series shocked the college baseball nation as the ‘Eaters were one of the last four teams to be selected to the postseason.
With a low seed heading into the postseason, the ‘Eaters traveled to Corvallis, Oregon to face the nation’s No. 1 overall seed in Oregon State. UC Irvine exploded out of the gate and totaled 24 runs in the first two games, leading the Regional in runs scored in the first two games of the postseason. The ‘Eaters held off Oregon State and won two out of three to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals on the back of workhorses, Andrew Morales and Elliot Surrey. Morales totaled 11 and 1/3 innings in two starts on short rest and only allowed three runs through the Corvallis Regional. Surrey gave, perhaps, his best performance of the season as he earned the first victory against Oregon State by tossing seven innings and also came back on short rest to earn his first ever collegian save to send the Anteaters past the No. 1 seed and into the Super Regional’s in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
As the ‘Eaters made their fourth Super Regional appearance in school history, the team faced yet another No. 1 seed in the College World Series, Oklahoma State. The ‘Eaters wasted no time, sweeping the nation’s No. 3 overall seed in two games to continue their remarkable run to the College World Series. UC Irvine again rode the arms of Morales and Surrey by holding Oklahoma to a combined four runs through two games. Morales’ had the standout performance by tossing his third complete game shutout of the season to complete the improbably sweep over one of the last remaning seeds in the tournament.
The ‘Eaters stayed true to their strengths in the first two Regionals of the NCAA tournament, as they showed their Big West pitching products could stand toe to toe along college baseball’s best. Through their first six games in the postseason, UC Irvine’s pitching staff was able to accumulate five quality starts, holding teams to less than four runs a game all but once throughout the postseason. UC Irvine’s offense was highlighted by their season leaders in Taylor Sparks and Conner Spencer as they combined to hit .457 and score 14 runs to kickstart the team. Sparks’ led the team with a .458 batting average and scored a team high eight runs while hitting a total of five extra-base hits including a homerun. Spencer led the team in RBI’s with six and was consistently on base with a .455 batting average and scored six runs to help lead the team to punching their ticket to Omaha, Nebraska.
The ‘Eaters opened up their series in Omaha with a hard fought 3-1 win over Texas. UC Irvine handed the ball to Morales who minimized the threats of the Longhorns by tossing six innings and only allowing one earned run while striking out five before handing off the ball to season starter, Evan Brock. Brock shut down the Longhorns in his appearance and earned the victory for the Anteaters positioning them in a winners bracket match up against Vanderbilt. Sparks again proved to be the ‘spark’ for the offense as he went three for four with a double and a triple, while driving in one run and scoring on a clutch base hit by Chris Rabago.
The win set the ‘Eaters to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores who’s pitching proved to be too much for the ‘Eaters. Irvine’s bats were silenced after a four run second inning and dropped the game 6-4. Throughout the game the Commodores executed on opportunities and the ‘Eaters were unable to respond after being held hitless over the last five and one third innings and striking out eight times. The loss sent the Anteaters to an elimination game rematch against the Longhorns
. UC Irvine’s 1-0 loss to the Longhorns could have gone in favor of either team but a leadoff home run by the Longhorns proved to be the only difference. UC Irvine’s pitching once again kept them in the ball game as relief pitcher Evan Manarino only made one mistake through his 6 1/3 innings pitched, but the ‘Eaters couldn’t get their bats going to bring an end to an incredible run.
Although the season ended just shy of the Anteaters expectations, the UC Irvine baseball team ends the season with many accolades. The ‘Eaters’ 40 win season is the fifth time in the last seven years the team has won more than 40 games in a season in the last seven years. Additionally, the ‘Eaters reached the College World Series for just the second time in school history and made its mark on the college baseball nation by having five of their current students drafted in the MLB First Year Player Draft.
The Anteaters were well supported in the MLB draft on June 5th and 6th as the ‘Eaters saw Andrew Morales, Taylor Spark, Connor Spencer, Chris Rabago, and Sam Moore get drafted into the MLB. UC Irvine was fourth in the Big West Conference with five selections in the MLB draft, only trailing CSU Fullerton, Cal Poly Pomona and UC Riverside for most in the Big West. Furthermore, Coach Mike Gillespie was named American Baseball Coaches Association West Region Coach of the year. The award was Gillespie’s third of his career and one of several milestones he reached this season as he also earned his 1,000 career victory and won another coach of the year award courtesy of the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Senior pitcher Andrew Morales won the Big West Pitcher of the Year award and was selected to the All-American first-team along with closer Sam Moore who won the Breakout Player of the Year award after coming up one save shy of the NCAA record.
Although the Anteaters’ Cinderella story struck midnight a lot sooner than the ‘Eaters had hoped. Fans of the team can rest assured the team will be back next year to compete in hopes of making another historic run.