Inexperienced Lineup Prepares for Season

Seven months ago, the UC Irvine baseball team was in a position many did not believe they would be in. Irvine battled courageously in front of a national audience, one strike away from upsetting the No. 1 seed, the University of Virginia Cavaliers,  and  shocking the baseball world by advancing to the College World Series.

The Anteaters, however, lost in heartbreaking fashion. They watched as their opportunity slipped through their hands and saw their season come to an end as Virginia celebrated their victory pitilessly on the field.

“The goal is to win it all, but to have had the chance to go to Omaha and have it end so abruptly like that, it was difficult. It still is,” manager Mike Gillespie said. “There are losses and then there are real difficult losses that you never really forget about.”

The Anteaters enter the 2012 season looking to build off of their 2011 postseason experience. They will have to do so without the assistance of key run producers of the past.

The biggest concern for the Anteaters is finding out a way to replace last year’s seniors. Brian Hernandez led the team in batting average and hits, and Drew Hillman led the team in home runs and RBIs. Include the transfer of designated hitter Jordan Leyland and graduation of outfielder Sean Madigan, and the Anteaters have gone from veteran to an inexperienced lineup.

Fortunately for Irvine, they will be led by a promising senior class that includes a superior defensive catcher in Ronnie Shaeffer, shortstop D.J. Crumlich, second baseman Tommy Reyes, and Jordan Fox, a first baseman who can rake.

Crumlich batted .300, while leading the team in runs scored and doubles. Fox hit .323 and tied for the team-lead in stolen bases.  The two return as the team’s top offensive producers, but don’t sleep on Shaeffer.

Last season, Shaeffer hit just .264. By focusing much of his time on handling the pitching staff and gunning down base runners, his offensive production dipped. But the previous two seasons, Shaeffer hit .388 and .318 respectively, belting seven home runs over the same span. Gillespie expects his catcher to continue to handle the staff with grace and produce in the middle of the order.

Also entering the lineup for the ‘Eaters is the versatile, right-handed hitting junior outfielder Scott Gottschling, who will get the opportunity to start at CF or RF after seeing limited time as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner the past few seasons. Gillespie noted that  Gottschling has improved each year.

Rounding out the senior class is starting outfielder Christian Ramirez, who will likely bat at the top of the lineup. Ramirez is a spark plug who has impressive speed and a surprisingly powerful bat. He’ll hit a few gappers, swipe a number of bases and play solid outfield.

Joining Gottschling and Ramirez in the outfield will likely be left-handed hitting freshman Kris Paulino. The newcomer will compete for playing time in left or right field. Gillespie has praised Paulino as an advanced freshman hitter with the ability to swing the bat and make a significant contribution.

Another freshman that Gillespie has raved about is infielder Taylor Sparks. Sparks is the lead candidate to replace the vacancy left by Hernandez at third base. Gillespie has stated that Sparks will one day be a professional third baseman because of his combination of athleticism and major-league power. The skipper also believes that Sparks will be the X-factor for the team, but still needs to develop consistency on the field and at the plate.

Other young players that figure to be in the mix for the Anteaters include infielders Dillon Moyer and Chris Rabago. Should either crack the starting lineup over Sparks, Reyes would shift over to third base and either Moyer or Rabago would play second.

Moyer, the son of Major League southpaw Jamie Moyer, is a five-tool player who could replace Crumlich next season when he graduates. His growth would add a welcomed depth to the ’Eaters’ offense.

“At this time last year, we pretty much knew what we had,” Gillespie said. “In virtually every spot in the lineup we had a veteran player. But in the case this year, we have new players, brand new players, freshman players taking the place of [Hernandez, Hillman] and that’s the key issue with this team, replacing those guys because they were key offensive players.

“Now we’re counting on the returning players to be just a little bit better,” the coach added. “No matter how you slice it, there will be three or four new players in the lineup, and you really don’t know what you have until you get them out there. They’re young, regardless of their talent level.”

This season looks to be another exciting one for the Anteaters. Their 2012 season will commence in a Feb. 17-19 series at the Urban Invitation in Houston, Texas. Irvine will then host UNLV for their home opener on Feb. 20 at Cicerone Field.