Let’s Play Ball: Gillespie, Bibona and Crew Ready to Return to Omaha

After losing ace Scott Gorgen and No. 2 starter Bryce Stowell after the 2008 season, UCI went out and had arguably the best regular season in school history in 2009. In 2010, the club returns all five of their top pitchers and an impressive 17 letter winners—including nine starters. Needless to say, the future is brighter than the Southern California sun.

The Anteaters were ranked No. 1 in the nation for a solid six weeks of the 2009 season, running up a ridiculous 45-15 (22-2 in the Big West!) record en route to their first Big West Conference Championship. The Anteaters also hosted an NCAA Tournament regional (only 16 teams in the nation get to do this). All three accomplishments were firsts in program history, clear signs that UCI baseball continues to build off the famous 2007 team that made a historic run into the College World Series and sweeping the nation on to the Eater Nation bandwagon.

“The season ended in great disappointment,” Head Coach Mike Gillespie (who was recently inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame) said. “We had a very good year, and it was a team that we all felt, and feel to this minute, that was capable of a College World Series run.”

Unfortunately, Irvine wound up with the “regional of death” in the first round, drawing defending national champions Fresno State, pitching phenom Steven Strasburg led San Diego State and ACC champions Virginia.

“We ran into a buzz saw in Virginia, a team that was under the radar, underrated, under-evaluated, under-everything,” Gillespie said. “SDSU was one of the teams that literally every team in the country did not want in their regional. They had last year’s Nolan Ryan, and so nobody wanted him in their regional, and we got them. UVA did not match up their No. 1 or No. 2 starters against SDSU but [UVA] was still able to beat [SDSU] with their No. 3. Once they beat them with their No. 3, it changed the whole tournament.”

UCI felt like they had to throw their ace, Daniel Bibona, in the first game against a left-handed heavy Fresno State, and ended up getting unfavorable pitching match-ups against UVA in the elimination game.

“We did not play poorly. We really didn’t. We ran into very good pitching against Virginia. It’s just the luck of the draw,” Gillespie said.

This year, UCI has been ranked in the pre-season top 10 by numerous polls because of the wealth of returning talent from last year’s golden team. Bibona (16th round) and second basemen Casey Stevenson (38th round) were both drafted by Major League Baseball teams, but chose to return for their senior seasons. Catcher Francis Larson, first baseman Jeff Cusick, No. 2 starter Christian Bergman, and closer Eric Pettis were also potential draft prospects that will also all return as seniors. Incoming transfers Drew Hillman and Brian Hernandez were also drafted, but will instead make their debuts with UCI. This is an extremely rare collection of senior starters on a college baseball team—a group of guys that earned too many All-Big West, All-American and pre-season National Award watch lists mentions to list.

Pitching Coach Ted Silva and Associate Head Coach Pat Shine are just as important to the team’s success as Gillespie. Both have been lauded as highly important to both the recruiting process and the team’s top notch pitching.

Come out and watch the talent-laden Anteaters play at beautiful Ralph Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark. Don’t miss out on seeing future major leaguers at UCI beat up on the likes of UCLA and USC. A trip to Omaha and the College World Series is as promising as ever.

UCI takes on Loyola Marymount Feb. 19 with the first pitch of the season at 6 p.m.