Jeff Cusick’s tenure as a UC Irvine baseball player is ending with a bang. The senior first baseman is playing amazing on both offense and defense, and is a strong leader on and off the field. Jeff is a safe bet to be picked sooner than later in this year’s MLB Amateur Draft in June. However, Jeff is not concerned about the future. He’s focused on the current college season and is just enjoying his time in college.
“Of course that’s the ultimate goal, to get to that next level and keep competing and keep playing,” Cusick said. “It’s not something I wouldn’t want to do, but it’s something that isn’t in my immediate control. This has been one of the best times in my life. I have been spending time with good teammates and good coaches and having fun every day. ”
Cusick is a local product. He hails from Mission Viejo and attended Santa Margarita High School. In his senior year, he led the league with a .446 batting average and a .843 slugging percentage. He also played in the Orange County All-Star Game. Jeff also has some ties to professional baseball: his older brother Matt is currently in the New York Yankees minor league system.
As of May 15, Cusick leads UCI in many of the most important offensive categories. He has the highest batting average at .401. He ranks first in total hits (73), doubles (19), homeruns (8), RBIs (54) and slugging percentage (.637). More impressively, Cusick has walked 21 times against a mere eight strikeouts and also ranks first in on-base percentage.
“I just go up there and if I get to two strikes, I just try and compete,” Cusick said about his ability to not strike out. “There’s nothing worse than not giving yourself a chance. It’s just experience … thinking along with pitchers has helped too.”
Cusick’s numbers might not mean he will have a smooth transition into pro ball, but he has some serious backing from two well-known people in the baseball world. UCI head coach Mike Gillespie has seen things from Jeff that will help him succeed at the next level.
“What Jeff has proven to be, which is what gives him a chance to succeed in professional baseball, is a really good hitter against all types of pitching,” Gillespie said. “Scouts like the fact that he consistently gives a professional at-bat. He has learned to trust his short, quick, flat, inside-the-ball, compact swing that enables him to compete with high velocity, and, in trusting himself, he knows that he can take the extra second to read off-speed pitches. He’s a bright guy who learns quickly, and his work ethic is that of a winner.”
UCI associate head coach Pat Shine might know more about Cusick’s game than anyone else. Coach Shine spent the entire offseason helping Cusick with his swing.
“I believe Cusick is without a doubt one of our team leaders — he certainly is not a vocal leader, but leads by example,” Shine said. “I hope our younger hitters are observing and learning from his daily preparation. His ability to use his hands to hit and balance lends itself to have success at the next level and ability to have success swinging the wooden bat.”
With all that said, Cusick knows that he must stay focused on the season at hand and let go of the things that are out of his control. It is about staying true to his self and putting together good at-bats.
“You just got to go about your business and play the game hard and play the game your way and don’t try to be someone you’re not,” Cusick said. “Don’t try and swing for a certain guy looking at you and don’t try and play defense for a guy looking at you. If I play the right way, and things fall into place, then I’ll be happy.”
If Cusick could control where he ended up, he would like to be drafted to a team with minor league teams that are close to the Los Angeles area. He would love the chance to play in front of family and friends. Right now, however, it is about helping UC Irvine finish its season on strong note.
“We need to get better with consistency. We have glimpses of being a great team, a powerhouse team, and then we have times where we play down. If we can minimize those breakdowns, then we’ll get to where we want to be at the end,” Cusick said.
A version of this article, written by the same author, appeared in the Orange County Register on Friday May 14th, 2010.