Forget the road to Omaha. Forget that fateful game three at Louisiana Sate University last June. Forget any hype that has preceded the UC Irvine baseball team. This season will be the one to remember.
Coming off an abrupt end to the 2008 season, this squad feels not only confident but anxious to face the toughest teams in the country. Its first test will come on the big island of Hawaii as the team travels to the University of Hawaii this weekend for a three-game series.
This first taste of competition is something the entire clubhouse is looking forward to. The months of inter-squad practice games have garnered a healthy hunger within the squad to start a very tough schedule as soon as possible. The players and coaches are all anxious to show the rest of the country that even with the loss of some key players from last season, the team has only worked tirelessly to become a better overall squad. The Anteaters begin the season ranked ninth in the nation by Baseball America.
This hard work has started first and foremost on the mound. UCI teams have become known for its pitching, and as all indicators show, pitching is what gets you far in the postseason. With the loss of two starters, Scott Gorgen and Bryce Stowell to the Major League draft, new players have had to step up and fill that void. This responsibility has been taken over by the three-headed monster-Daniel Bibona, Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis.
Aside from the various preseason All-American projections and dominating stats from last season, this group of guys will be sure to impose fear on any offense across the country. Each pitcher possesses a competitive nature that will not be denied or suppressed by the pressure that comes with the territory.
Bibona is tabbed to be the Big West pitcher of the year by Baseball America, which is the most credible source for college baseball. He isn’t a power pitcher, but he will mess with your mind. He has an amazing command of his three pitches and can put them wherever he wants, keeping hitters looking goofy at the plate.
Bergman has a high 80s, low 90s sinker and a slider. He tore it up in Alaska over the summer and has a few more pitches that will surprise opponents. Oh yeah, and his earned run average was 1.94.
Pettis came up one save short of the national saves lead last year with 17. He has a devastating slider, which he can throw 100 percent of the time if he wanted.
Pettis will be the Sunday starter depending on how many pitches he throws as a reliever on Friday and Saturday. The only hole the Anteaters have right now is in the bullpen. The inexperienced ‘pen needs to grow up quick, but UCI has the talent to do do so. Sophomore Crosby Slaught pitched well in the fall and can be thrown into the mix when he regains form. Sophomore Nick Hoover also has a solid fastball to go along with a slider and will be key as a set-up man.
The biggest surprise will be senior Brock Bardeen. Yes, the same Bardeen that seemed to hit a home run at every at-bat late last season (he hit four pinch hit homer runs). He surprised the team with a low 90s fastball and a formidable curve ball.
UCI pitching has been known to shine to most against top competition. It will get that top competition this season, as UCI will take on first-ranked Texas A&M, fifth-ranked Cal State Fullerton, eigth-ranked Baylor, eleventh-ranked San Diego and twelfth-ranked UCLA. Not to mention the rest of the Big West Conference.
“We love playing the best teams. We would hate our schedule if we played the teams that had the lowest [runs per inning] in the country. It just wouldn’t be fun. Having that competition is why we are all here; to play the best,” said junior starting pitcher Daniel Bibona.
But to play the best, you need to be the best day in and day out, pitch after pitch. That is something this group of guys has no problem doing. Throughout the preseason, the emphasis in practice has been to take the mentality of one pitch at a time. This type of discipline will be the key for a staff that will need to face the likes of powerhouse offenses later in the season. However, a little bit of talent can never hurt.
“I think we are pretty spoiled with Bergman, Pettis and Bibona,” said Pitching Coach Ted Silva. “I would say Bibona is a poor man’s Johan Santana. Pettis is able to carry the heavy load like a Pappelbon type of guy. But Bergman is more of a hybrid of many different great pitchers. You are not going to find three better guys to head a staff, and there are a lot of people saying that.”
While UCI has always had the pitching, one aspect this team has that separates it from past years is an extremely solid offense. UCI has hitters from the top to the bottom of the lineup. The offense is lead by Brooks Wallace Award candidate senior Ben Orloff who hit .344 last seasons, including 17 doubles. He is the master of small ball. Coach Shine raves about his intangible qualities as a leader.
“He is a once–every–20-years kind of guy,” Shine said.
He is the best ‘Eater hitter and best defensive player at shortstop. However, his knowledge of the game and his personality far surpass his years.
The rest of the starting lineup is outlined on the front page.
Another notable potential contributor will be sophomore Maverick Olivares. Olivares suffered from a dislocated shoulder a few times last season, and finally got off-season surgery when it became too serious. Since his recovery, he has looked like a completely different player with range that the coaches had not seen before. He has a full swing now and has played good defense at second base. Coach Gillespie is eager to give him playing time this season.
Don’t expect a drop off from this season’s team. “The Company” is even coming back strong with an American Idol-esque tryout for its third member for the greatest college baseball improv group. Dillon Bell and Chris Lopez will look to replace Ollie Linton. Veterans surround this team and experience screams success, espcially this kind of expeirence (two consecutive Super Regional apperances and a College World Series appearance).
This team is legit. Just look at the rankings and the lineups. The pitching is solid, and the offense is better than last year’s. Pack the ballpark. It’s going to be the most exciting ticket in UCI sports this season.