Pitching’s Been the Baseball Team’s Playoff Bugaboo in Recent Years

UC Irvine Baseball reigned supreme in 2007, overwhelming teams in the Regionals and Super Regionals, and reaching the College World Series for the first time in school history before falling to the Oregon State Beavers, the eventual national champions.

But that was four years ago and we live in a “what have you done for me lately” society. In the last three years the Anteaters have earned three berths to the NCAA Baseball Tournament, but only once have they advanced past the first round.

Sure, some of it has been due to bad luck. Two years ago the ’Eaters hosted the regional of death, which included the University of Virginia, a College World Series participant, San Diego State, which was led by the eventual No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, and the defending national champs in Fresno State.

Other times it has been UCI’s own doing. In 2008 the ’Eaters reached the Super Regionals and could have gone to the College World Series for a second straight year, but they shot themselves in the foot. After winning the first of three games against Louisiana State University, the Anteaters were three outs away from advancing but collapsed. The ’Eaters entered the ninth with a 7-4 lead, but the Tigers pushed five runs across in the top of the inning in what became a demoralizing loss. UCI failed to recover in game three as the LSU bats overwhelmed them in the rubber match, losing 21-7.

Last year the Anteaters opened up the UCLA regional with a loss but they had every chance to win that game. UCI entered the ninth with a one-run lead but failed to capitalize, allowing familiar foe LSU to tie the game. Going into the bottom of the 11th, the ’Eaters held another one-run lead but could not hold on to it, losing 11-10 in extras. Who knows how far the ’Eaters could have gone if they would have won that game?

If Head Coach Mike Gillespie and the rest of the baseball team plan to end their first-round misfortunes, make another appearance in the Super Regionals and even think about going to the College World Series, many things will have to fall into place.

It starts with their bats. All season long the ’Eaters have scored in bunches. UCI started the season with a 7-0 record and in those games they outscored their opponents 82 runs to 15, which included a 20-0 beat-down of Grambling State. When the Anteaters score five runs or more they are a perfect 29-0.

But when they don’t score, they don’t win. The Anteaters are only 6-13 in games where they have only managed to put less than five runs on the board. If the Anteaters expect to contend and make it out of the first round, their offense cannot become anemic.

Although UCI’s bats have overwhelmed many opponents, the Anteaters are led by their pitching. As of May 10, UCI’s earned run average ranked 27 out of 292 teams. The ’Eaters have pieced together a solid pitching staff despite losing Christian Bergman, Eric Pettis and the immortal Daniel Bibona. It has been Matt Summers who has shouldered the majority of the load. The junior pitcher leads the team in ERA (1.90), wins (9), games started (14), innings pitched (94.2) and strikeouts (85).

But their strongest aspect is also their weakest. There is no doubt that Summers is the proven ace, but the rest of the bunch is inconsistent. Redshirt junior Crosby Slaught is second on the team with 11 games started and seven wins under his belt, but he needs to pitch with more consistency and lower his 3.90 ERA if he expects to shoulder the load with Summers. After Summers and Slaught, no pitcher on the UCI roster has started more than eight games. In the last four years, the Anteaters have had three solid pitchers that would keep UCI in the game, but this hasn’t been the case this year.

The Anteaters have amassed a 37-14 overall record because they have relied on a bunch of sophomores and freshmen who have pitched by committee. And who knows when freshmen pitchers Phillip Ferragamo and Jimmy Litchfield, who have combined for more than 40 relief appearances will hit the wall.

The unexperienced pitchers will need to come up big in the postseason where their more veteran predecessors have faltered, when the pressure is palpable. They will need to show some grit to be able to win on the road.

Barring some type of miracle, UCI will not be hosting a regional, even if they somehow manage to claim the Big West title, which is Cal State Fullerton’s to lose. Since they will most likely end up as a second or third seed, UCI’s young pitching staff will need to grow up quickly if they want to make another deep run.

Just like the Major Leagues, every team in the NCAA Baseball Tournament will start new; regular season successes and stats will be thrown out the window. Once June 3 hits the calendar, the only thing that will matter is which team wants it more. And if the 2007 UCI baseball team managed to turn heads by reaching the College World Series, then the 2011 squad should not be written off just yet.