Unproven Pitching Has Huge Shoes to Fill, Key to Team’s Success

The 2011 UC Irvine pitching staff has quite a task this season to follow up the success of former Anteater aces Daniel Bibona, Eric Pettis and Christian Bergman. However, Coach Gillespie has recruited some intriguing talent that will help this year’s team in reaching the road to Omaha.

“The pitching deal is an exciting thing,” said Gillespie, who has coached the likes of pitching phenoms Barry Zito and Mark Prior while at USC. “We were spoiled for three years with the pitchers we had.”

Sadly, the Anteaters will be without sophomore sensation Evan Brock for the entire year due to a shoulder injury, according to Gillespie. Brock, who compiled a 6-4 record with a 3.14 ERA, and was named to the NCAA All-Regional Team last season, was one of the few pitchers with meaningful experience and was expected to be one of the aces of this year’s staff.

“We are very, very young,” Gillespie said. “But it doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope for this year.”

Junior RHP Matt Summers will be the Friday starter, followed by sophomore RHP Kyle Hooper. Junior RHP Crosby Slaught will round out the weekend’s rotation.

Summers had played in the outfield in addition to starting 14 games over the past two seasons, batting a healthy .302 with 10 career RBIs. Coach Gillespie will look to “emphasize” more of Summer’s pitching ability this season, believing the 6-foot-1-inch pro prospect has both the competitive drive and athletic ability to lead the ’Eaters’ staff. Summers participated in the Cape Cod summer league in 2010 where he finished the season with an ERA of 3.04.

Hooper, standing at 6 feet 4 inches and hailing from Saugus High School, has a consistent ability to throw strikes and improved his command of the plate over the past year.  He finished last season’s campaign with 14 strikeouts in 18 relief appearances.

Slaught, who utilized his redshirt last year due to injury, returns as one of the Anteaters’ most experienced pitchers. In 2009, Slaught finished with a 4.62 ERA perfect 8-0 record. Gillespie hopes his injury from a year ago won’t affect his play this season.

Closing duties for the Anteaters will fall on the arm of senior RHP Brian Hernandez, who is also the starting third baseman. Although Hernandez only has mild throwing experience, Gillespie has confidence that the first team All-Big West infielder won’t “crack” under pressure.

The ’Eaters’ bullpen is led by junior RHP Nick Hoover (2.48 ERA in 2010) and sophomore LHPs Andy Lines (20 K in 2010), and Matt Whitehouse (4.50 e.r.a. in 2010).

Coach Gillespie will also rely on newcomers Andrew Thurman (RHP), Phillip Ferragamo (RHP), Jimmy Litchfield (LHP) and Tyler Abbott (LHP) to contribute this season. Gillespie strongly believes all of these freshmen have the potential to do great things for the future of the baseball program, and beyond in the pro ranks.

Even though the pitching staff is young and inexperienced, the pitchers will need to utilize the knowledge passed down to them from the previous aces of last season.

“It’s going to be big shoes to fill from last year,” Hoover said. “We have a lot of innings to make up for in terms of experience. But I learned a lot from just watching Bergman because his pitching style is similar to mine.”

The pitchers have a chip on their shoulders coming into this season and are out to prove to their doubters that they can lead this talented Anteater squad deep into the postseason, and possibly far into Omaha.

“We still have high expectations for ourselves,” Whitehouse said. “We are in here every day working hard, and ready for the season to start. We still have support from the guys who graduated [Bergman and Bibona].”