The UC Irvine baseball team is gearing up for the 2011 season, which begins on Feb. 18 in a three-game series against Nevada at Cicerone Field. Last year, the Anteaters finished with their seventh consecutive winning season at 39-21, a year after finishing 45-15 in 2008. UCI was knocked out of postseason play on June 6, 2010 by UCLA, the eventual NCAA College World Series runner-up.
After losing the heart of the team to graduation and the 2010 Major League Baseball draft for some, Head Coach Mike Gillespie expects several players to step into new roles this season as the team enters 2011 ranked No. 26 in the nation by USA Today. Notable departures include ace Danny Bibona, signal caller Francis Larson, power threat Jeff Cusick, consistent producer Casey Stevenson, reliable starter Christian Bergman and closer/starter Eric Pettis.
Despite the turnover of players, Gillespie said, “I like our team. The unknown is pitching and the guys who haven’t played regularly.”
The Anteaters are going to have quite a bit of competition this season and Gillespie spoke highly of Big West rivals UC Riverside (at Riverside, May 20-22), UC Santa Barbara (at Santa Barbara, May 13-15) and No. 9 Cal State Fullerton (at Fullerton, April 8-10), while explaining that Long Beach State should be good (vs. Long Beach, May 27-29), but has several question marks after losing quite a bit of talent last year.
“It’s a competitive league,” senior outfielder Sean Madigan said. “We can’t pay attention to the name on the other team’s jerseys. We just have to play each team like it’s our last game.”
If UCI wishes to return to the NCAA Regional this season, they will have to ride the coattails of a young, untested pitching staff. Gillespie has confidence in his lineup, but hopes his tentative rotation of Matt Summers, Kyle Hooper and Crosby Slaught can prove themselves early.
Expect the beginning of the season to be a feeling-out process as Gillespie tests his starters and position players while evaluating who deserves starts and at-bats, and who is more fitted for pinch running and defensive substitutions.
“We think we should compete for a playoff spot,” Gillespie said.
The players and staff are much more reserved this year compared to years past when it comes to predictions. Whether that’s an indication that the team is in a rebuilding phase or just level-headedness brought on by losing a number of key arms and bats over the offseason, the Anteaters should compete in the Big West, though a fairytale ending in Omaha seems unlikely in 2011.
A day at Anteater Ballpark is always worth the experience. It’s a family-based team that plays the game the right way. As each player arrived at Cicerone Field for their workouts last Thursday, each one jogged on the warning track from the right field corner to the home dugout before walking into the clubhouse.
“That was implemented by the old staff,” Madigan said. “Ben Orloff (now in the Houston Astros’ organization) kept it going. It’s about respecting the game. We always work hard and always hustle and never walk on the field.”