Amid Summers’ Nice Dream

Sofia Panuelos/New University

Matt Summers has known what he has wanted to do since he was in elementary school – play Major League Baseball. When his career is all said and done, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound ballplayer might have to be dragged off the diamond, because he sure as hell won’t walk away.

The social science major’s mind is likely elsewhere when in the classroom; after all, he was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school and as of late, scouts from every single MLB team have been contacting him. The junior daydreams of playing in the big leagues – and why shouldn’t he? – his fastball touches 97 miles per hour.

At age 4, Summers recalls watching impatiently from the grandstands as his older brother played t-ball: he wanted in.

“Baseball is my life goal,” Summers said. “It’s what I’ve been working toward and it’s been year-round since I was 11.”

A high school standout, the Arizona native once decommitted from Arizona State University because he foresaw recruiting violations (ASU is now on probation). Instead he decided to take his career to Orange County.

“I always wanted to play D1 [Division 1 baseball] on the beach,” he said. “I figured it would be UCLA or USC, but after I decommitted from ASU, I saw the [UCI] campus, met the guys and it was a done deal.”

A gamer, even a severe knee injury couldn’t hold Summers out of action in his freshman year as a UC Irvine Anteater. Just months prior to the start of his college career, Summers tore his meniscus. He went in for surgery on Jan. 7, 2009, and six weeks later he laced his cleats up for the season opener in Hawaii against the Warriors.

Summers’ first two seasons in Irvine weren’t much to write home about. As a left-handed hitting and right-handed throwing freshman, he stepped into the batter’s box eight times and logged seven mop-up relief innings on the mound. The versatile bench player came away with a .125 batting average and a 7.71 ERA, but there was no way he would’ve sat that season out if given the opportunity.

“I rushed back [from the surgery] for my freshman year, but I got to experience my first Regional,” Summers said contently.

Last season Summers struggled in early outings as a pitcher and was featured as a defensive replacement in the outfield. Summers hit .343 in 35 at-bats, while registering a 2-2 record with the highest ERA on the team (8.51) in 30 innings of work.

Despite the struggles, Summers held his own as a pitcher in the playoffs. In relief of Eric Pettis, Summers threw a season-high five innings, giving up just three runs to the UCLA Bruins, the eventual College World Series runner-up.

“That game reassured me,” Summers said. “I realized that [pitching] was what I needed to focus on.”

After last season, Bibona, Pettis and senior starter Christian Bergman entered the 2010 draft. But Manager Mike Gillespie still had Evan Brock to hang his hat on to lead the 2011 staff. Over the offseason, however, UCI learned that Brock, a righty who went 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA in 2010, would be sidelined due to a shoulder injury. When Brock went down, Gillespie looked to Summers, a pitcher who had never thrown a nine-inning complete game.

“This was a late decision,” Summers said. “I learned that I’d be a starter this winter and the coaching staff started extending [my pitch count].”

As the ace of this year’s UCI’s pitching staff, Summers entered this season with big shoes to fill. Irvine’s new Friday starter has taken the reigns from All-American southpaw Danny Bibona, arguably one of the most successful starting pitchers in club history.

Thrown to the wolves, the Nevada WolfPack to be exact, the junior took the hill on Opening Day at Anteater Ballpark on Feb. 18.

“There was a lot more pressure,” Summers said of the difference between mop-up relief and Opening Day starter. “Everyone was looking to me.”

The Anteater bats supplied Summers with a comfortable lead. He struck three batters out in scoreless fashion against Nevada in the first two innings and entered the third with an 8-0 lead. In the third it was a different story for Summers; he hit two batters and then walked another to load the bases, before nailing a third batter to bring in a run. Gillespie had seen enough and he went to the bullpen just 2.1 innings into Summers’ first start as the staff’s ace.

“[Summers] was a little too fired up,” catcher Ronnie Schaeffer said of his battery mate’s performance.

“It just wasn’t there that day and I wasn’t sticking to my game plan,” Summers said.

The competitive ballplayer that he is, Summers entered his next start with a chip on his shoulder.

“Coach [Gillespie] told me he had faith in me,” Summers said.

Summers threw a gem in his second start against Southern University. The righty made opposing hitters look foolish, tossing eight innings and striking out nine, while surrendering just two hits and one earned run.

“I feel like I could’ve thrown the ninth,” Summers said beaming after the ballgame; it was the longest outing of his career.

Gillespie referred to it as one of the best pitching performances he had seen in his time at UCI.

“He was impressive today,” Gillespie said after the 7-1 victory. “We saw those things we had been dreaming about with him.”

Since the dominant outing, Summers is now 6-2 with a 2.17 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 70.2 innings.

“Matt’s one of those guys who’s just a bulldog out there,” sophomore teammate Matt Whitehouse said. “He’s a competitor, a good teammate and a good guy to learn from.”

Making scouts drool at times, Summers likely has college baseball hardware and accolades in his near future, but his current goal is to throw his first complete game.

With a two-seam fastball, changeup and slider in his repertoire, Summers would like to develop his cutter, but figures that he’ll have plenty of time to work on it in the minors. Summers knows his future is dependent upon his right arm, despite his affinity for hitting.

“I always knew I could pitch,” Summers said, “but figured I could change people’s minds about my hitting. I’m a pitcher now though. I think I’d probably be a reliever in the pros, so I can throw harder out of the pen.”

In his off days, Summers sits antsy on the bench. Injuries to the team, however, have allowed Summers to step to the plate for six at-bats this season, despite leaving his valuable pitching elbow exposed from the left side of the plate. The gamer that he is, Summers loves hitting in between outings.

“It takes way too long to get to the next start,” Summers said. “I wish I could throw every day.”

Summers threw eight solid innings in his latest start on April 29 at Cal State Bakersfield, striking out four and allowing two runs. Entering the ninth, UCI lead 4-0 and Summers’ first complete game shutout was in sight. But Bakersfield scratched across two runs off of Summers before he was lifted and given the no-decision when UCI lost in extra innings.

Eventually Summers’ complete game will come, but each consistent performance puts him one step closer to achieving his childhood dream.