Nail-Biters Galore: Tight Games Ahead

While it was the emergence of Matt Summers that carried the UC Irvine baseball team in 2011, the season came down to one pitch when the Anteaters were on the brink of defeating the No. 1 team in the nation last June.

The team watched a single dribble past Summers’ glove, the mound and the outstretched glove of second baseman Tommy Reyes. Into the outfield the ball rolled as the bottom of the ninth came to a close, as did Irvine’s 43-18 season in the Virginia Super Regional.

A miraculous UCI comeback was averted by the Virginia Cavaliers after the never-say-die ’Eaters forced an elimination game the day prior. Virginia packed for Omaha and the College World Series as the Anteaters watched their World Series dreams slip away.

Seven-and-a-half months have passed. It’s been enough time for a number of young arms to mature in manager Mike Gillespie’s stable of pitchers. It’s been enough time for Summers to leave school early for the Major League Baseball Draft, sign a contract with the Minnesota Twins, get married, throw 20.2 innings and record 36 strikeouts, six saves and a 0.87 earned run average for the Elizabethtown Twins of the Rookie Appalachian League. It’s been enough time for Gillespie to reformulate a pitching rotation in hopes of reaching the College World Series for the first time in the Hall of Fame coach’s fifth season at UCI, but it hasn’t been enough time to rinse the bitter taste out of the UCI manager’s mouth after that heartbreaking loss in Virginia.

“We had a lot to be proud of, […] but it was hurtful,” Gillespie said. “There [are] losses and then there [are] losses you never forget about.”

Perhaps a few question marks transforming into exclamation points would be the mouthwash Gillespie needs to freshen up the bitter taste that remains in the mouths of many Anteaters. A 2010 loss in the UCLA Regional was quickly brushed under the rug last season as Gillespie began salivating at the dominance of Summers, and that sort of an emergence would be key to a deep playoff run for the 2012 club.

This time last year, Gillespie had just received word that his ace, Evan Brock, was to be shelved with a season-ending shoulder surgery. Gillespie looked towards Summers, a fourth outfielder who dabbled with pitching as a mop-up reliever in 2010, to tag as his prestigious Friday starter. The skipper had no clue what to expect of Summers, who registered an 8.51 ERA over 30.2 innings pitched in 2010.  Summers turned doubters into believers quickly, going undefeated in the conference and becoming the Big West Pitcher of the Year. Oh, and by the way, he also tossed a no-hitter against a Long Beach State Dirtbags team that had never been held hitless in its storied program history.

With a vacated ace and closer role up for grabs, Gillespie has a number of question marks that could very well turn into exclamation points in 2012.

The first question comes from another Matt – Matt Whitehouse. The junior southpaw went from a left-handed specialist early in 2011 to the team’s No. 2 starter. A soft-tossing pitcher who relies on breaking balls, hitting his spots and thinking his way through matchups, Whitehouse proved his worth against the No. 1 team in the nation last June, recording a no decision in the Game 2 win that forced an elimination matchup in the Super Regional. Against Virginia, Whitehouse hurled five innings while relinquishing just three runs against a stacked offense. He also handled a four hour and 18 minute lightning delay with poise.

The Diamond Bar native was a perfect 4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in 2011. He upped his workload from six innings as a freshman in 2010 to 70.2 innings as a sophomore. But most impressive was his ability to throw strikes: Whitehouse gave up 15 walks last season, or 1.87 walks per nine innings. While a blister on his middle finger has hindered his pitching regimen this winter, the soft-spoken Whitehouse will let his pitching give the bird to opposing offenses in 2012.

Another uncertainty is sophomore Andrew Thurman. The righty was 4-3 in 2011 with a 3.82 ERA. Like Whitehouse, Thurman was also on cloud nine last June after relieving Whitehouse in game two against Virginia. Thurman tossed four innings and gave up just one run on three hits in the late innings of a nail-biting 6-4 win. Thurman has been experiencing shoulder tightness recently, which Gillespie is keeping tabs on. According to Gillespie, Thurman is throwing long-toss and the staff is monitoring him closely to make sure he doesn’t do any damage.

Back from shoulder surgery, Evan Brock will also compete for a spot in the rotation; however, at this point, Gillespie admits that Brock is behind schedule.

“[Brock] is healthy,” Gillespie said, “but he’s still coming in terms of his ability to be what he was. A shoulder surgery is hard to come back from and less predictable than Tommy John surgery, and that’s what we’re seeing here. […] He’s easy to root for. He’s a good guy, period. That guy’s college career was taking off. We want him to be ready today, but the truth of the matter is it’s a process. He’ll be better a month from now and even better a year from now.”

Brock’s velocity has dipped from 87-88 miles per hour in 2010 to 85-86 now. His best pitch is his changeup, but he’s still trying to find his groove. Expect Brock to start the season out of the bullpen, and if healthy, he’ll extend his pitch count enough to challenge for a starting role.

Last season’s Sunday starter, senior Crosby Slaught, relied heavily on run support. Slaught gave up 69 hits in 68.2 innings in 2011, but the Anteater bats always seemed to come through when the 6-4 righty was on the mound. At 7-2 last season, Slaught’s win totals will dip dramatically if he doesn’t cut down on his 1.30 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). With an expected dropoff in Anteater output at the plate, Slaught must limit runners in 2012, or risk falling behind early in games.

Sophomore Phillip Ferragamo will likely get a crack at starting some games early in the season if Thurman, Whitehouse and Brock are still battling back from their respective injuries, but the 6’ 8” righty could compete for the closer role or serve as a crucial reliever to bail the Anteaters out of jams once everyone’s healthy. Ferragamo throws gas and has buckled right-handed hitters’ knees early in his young college career with wicked curveballs. Last season Ferragamo was 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. While he walked just seven batters in 2011, the righty will need to avoid throwing out over the plate and begin pitching rather than throwing if he hopes to become an elite Big West arm.

Reliable relievers will lock down Irvine’s bullpen as sophomore Jimmy Litchfield, senior Nick Hoover, and juniors Kyle Hooper and Andy Lines return.

Litchfield was nails out of the pen as a freshman. The lefty threw in a team-high 34 games last season, logging 43.2 innings, a 2.89 ERA and a 2-1 record. Litch, as Gillespie likes to call him, will be a front-runner for the closer role.

Hoover was 2-4 with a 3.44 ERA in 2011. Gillespie expects big things out of him, stating “It’s time,” for his hard-throwing righty to live up to his potential.

Hooper ate up 44.1 innings last season. He was 3-0, with a 4.04 ERA, but Hooper saw most of his time when the Anteaters were trailing. Whether Gillespie trusts him in tight games remains to be seen.

As another lefty, Lines will likely compete for innings in his junior season. Lines was 5-2 last season, throwing 28 innings and registering a 2.57 ERA.

“There’s going to be a ton of two-run games in the eighth inning,” Gillespie said. “I don’t look for us to be ahead 8-3 in many games, truthfully, but I think we should be in games. We should pitch well enough and catch it well enough to be in every game.”

The Anteaters no longer have Summers and closer Brian Hernandez, a tandem that combined for a 14-6 record in 2011; however, the returners as a collective were an impressive 29-12 a year ago.

While Gillespie admits Summers carried his team last season, the returning staff (.707 win percentage) actually had a higher winning percentage than Summers and Hernandez combined (.700 win percentage).

“When it turns into a two-run game, we need to have the pitching to shut it down,” Gillespie said. “It’ll be fun. I’m really looking forward to it; it will be exciting.”