The Inside Pitch: Part I

Courtesy of UCI Athletics

Courtesy of UCI Athletics

Editor’s Note: This is part one in a series of installments.

The grass runs the entire stretch of the outfield and diamond; its fertility uninterrupted by players or unsightly patches of decay. The baseball field, moist from lazy coastal showers, bounces the refracted sunlight back onto the thin December cloud cover overhead with an almost artificial emerald hue, lending the grass the miraculous contrast of abrupt color in an otherwise monochrome world. In a bout of synesthesia, one smells the color in the fecund waft of freshly sown seed. Given the recent planting, the blades shoot up tall and wild – at least by the standards of a well-manicured baseball field like this one. While the grounds crew must patiently wait for the right moment to trim the verdure to code, it is by no means unkempt. This grass is still short enough to satisfy even the residents of the orderly Pleasantville planned around the university.

Nestled in a corner past the empty third base dugout, beyond the fence that runs to the outfield wall, standing parallel to the left field line, there is a batting cage. The University of California, Irvine’s Anteater Ballpark is in full off-season dormancy except for the periodic cracks, thwocks and thuds issuing from within the cage. The stadium’s massive analog clock beyond the center field wall remains on Daylight Savings Time through the first Monday of the month, marking the last resistance of this men’s game of spring, summer and autumn to winter’s dominion — such that it is in mild Orange County. Despite the general lack of cold, the last few weeks have brought persistent precipitation that has kept the players off the raw, healing grassland and inside the shelter of the cage.

Two adjacent vertical strips, separated only by safety netting, run the length of the cage. On one half, a pair of hitters take turns tossing each other sets of easy lobs from a short distance, ensuring solid contact on each drive. In the other half, junior right-hander Phil Ferragamo is the first member of the pitching staff to put in his time today fulfilling the day’s mandatory, but officially “non-mandatory,” supervised “unsupervised” workout.

Year round, the players train six out of seven days a week under the watchful eyes of their coaches, who are technically supposed to be absent during offseason workouts but unable to resist monitoring their burgeoning talent. The pitchers stay tuned with practice throwing sessions without a batter — simply known as “bullpens” — on half of these days. Ferragamo towers over the mound at six-foot-eight-inches and hurls the ball with intensity commensurate to his massive frame, sometimes wildly out of play but mostly in line with the target set by the catcher’s mitt.

Newly hired pitching coach Danny Bibona paces behind the batting cage pitching rubber, offering a gentle guiding voice to Ferragamo and spitting on the ground frequently as baseball players are known to do. He periodically calls out a number, challenging Ferragamo to hit the corresponding pitch location, following the attempt with positivity no matter the outcome. An even-keeled guy, Bibona earnestly hopes he doesn’t have to have a blow-up this season and that his pitchers stay in line and put in the work he expects of them.

The mold for what constitutes a pitcher at the highest levels of baseball varies widely, perhaps more than any other position in sports. The good fortune of major league pitching success has been visited upon the nearly obese, the freakishly tall and the impossibly old — but not so often diminutive, unassuming guys like Bibona. Although he stands 6 feet tall, he possesses a narrow and wiry build that, in a generic warm-up top and windbreaker pants, casts the image of a soccer player or cross country runner, lean and humble enough to last through endless miles of running. He certainly doesn’t strike you as a two-time college All-American pitcher and eighth round major league draft pick, and as a soft-spoken 24-year-old, he’s also not your typical Division I pitching coach.

Bibona was the smallest player on all of his teams growing up. As a freshman in high school, he stood just five feet tall and weighed ninety-five pounds. He didn’t elicit much attention, as he was not one to throw blazing fastballs past hitters or smash home runs from a young age. As an eight-year-old who loved pitching, he pestered his coach to let him pitch every game only to be repeatedly rebuffed. When he finally had his chance on the mound, he did well enough to earn a spot pitching every week. From there, Bibona made all-star teams, but didn’t garner significant playing time.

At private Santa Margarita High School in nearby Lake Forest, he had the fortune of a growth spurt, as well as playing alongside four teammates bound for Division I careers. They pushed each other, practicing at night after official practice, taking extra batting practice and hitting the weight room, addicted to doing whatever work was necessary to rise to the top of the game.

UC Irvine recruited Bibona as a two-way player to split time between the outfield and pitching, but a senior year injury to his non-throwing arm gave him pause. By the time he arrived at school, his right arm was better and he was hitting again, but the jump to a higher level of play led him to focus his efforts solely on pitching. Without the physical gifts of power to hit home runs out of college ballparks and speed to run the bases and patrol the outfield, Bibona saw it wise to focus his energy on pitching. While he was recruited by the Irvine coaches, he had to walk on to the program and earn his scholarship by proving himself as a freshman in 2007.

“Being a walk-on always made me want to get better,” he says. “I would look at touted guys and wonder ‘Why is he supposed to be so good? I’m better than him.’”

Bibona fought to prove to himself and everyone that he deserved the label and buzz given to top recruits. Being left-handed certainly helped. The world is predominated by righties, so increased competition demands they throw harder and simply be better. For the same reason, hitters don’t have the luxury of practicing against left-handed pitching, so lefties are a valuable commodity in the baseball world, proving to be more difficult for their opponents with perhaps less objective talent than their right-handed counterparts.

Bibona struggled his first season, despite holding his own in the preseason against teammates from a recruiting class that was one of the best in the nation and veterans that would lead the team to the cusp of a national championship. His successful, mature performances in fall intrasquad scrimmages translated into the coveted Saturday starter role once the season rolled around in February. During the season, important conference games are scheduled in series of three weekend games, with non-conference filler games left to Tuesdays.

The first Saturday start threw him right into the fire against a big name opponent: Cal, shorthand for Irvine’s big-brother UC branch in Berkeley. It was mind-boggling for Bibona to step up from high school competition to facing a school from the big-time Pac-10 conference whose football team he watched on Saturdays. He strayed from what made him successful in the fall. He tried to pitch beyond himself and struggled mightily, giving up four runs in the first inning and leaving the game early after surrendering a fifth score.

“It was one of the best things that could have happened to me,” he says.

Of course, he would have liked to do well, but making the roster for all the road trips and sitting in the dugout held its own value. Bibona was able to watch a lot of well-played baseball.

“I saw a lot of good pitchers and asked myself, ‘What’s the difference between them and me? What is making this guy successful and why wasn’t I successful?’”

Bibona went on to pitch out of the bullpen for most of his first season, coming on in relief towards the end of games for short appearances. Despite his struggles, he was handed the ball on college baseball’s biggest stage — the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska — the season-ending tournament that crowns the national champion.

Having already lost once to Arizona State in a tournament where a second loss sends a team home, Irvine was down 4-3 heading into the eighth inning, leaving them only six outs at bat to save their season and no margin for error on the defensive side of the ball. Star reliever Blair Erickson had just allowed three runs and recorded only two outs. With a runner on second sure to score on a base hit, Danny was tasked with ending the damage and preserving his team’s slim hopes for survival. As if the tension was lacking, he had to subdue the Sun Devils’ star player Brett Wallace — the best hitter in college baseball.

In front of a crowd of 29,034 people — the second largest in College World Series history —Bibona emerged from the bullpen knowing he was going to get Wallace out. In the regional tournaments leading up to Omaha, he acclimated to the gravity of 10,000 fans at games in Round Rock, Texas and Wichita, Kansas. The local University of Texas fans didn’t play a factor in Round Rock, but Wichita presented an entirely different atmosphere.

“It was 10,000 people again, but 10,000 people who didn’t want us to win,” Bibona said. “We had maybe 200 fans there for us; the rest hated our guts.”

Without a nearby team making up one of the eight World Series participants, the fans of Omaha adopted the upstart squad from Orange County making their first appearance in the tournament, energized after witnessing them pull off a dramatic extra-innings victory against Cal State Fullerton the night before. Nonetheless, as Bibona threw his warm-up pitches, he had nerves inching up the back of his neck.

Head coach Dave Serrano watched him loosen and had some last words before he headed back to the dugout, “You’ve put in the hard work in the bullpen, just have fun. And happy birthday.”

On the biggest stage, against the most formidable opponent, the last thing running through Bibona’s mind was his 19th birthday. But hearing that relaxed him a little bit. His first pitch was a curveball — ball one. The second, a fastball away from Wallace — called strike one. Then, on a curveball that he recalls as not very good, he jammed Wallace into a fly ball that center fielder Ollie Linton secured with a diving catch to end the inning.

The Anteaters rallied to tie the game in the bottom half of the eighth inning with a four-run surge, and Linton concluded the improbable comeback in the 10th inning with a game-winning walk-off single to right field. This, their second extra-innings win in as many nights, was a College World Series first and revived their feel-good story with a push into the national semifinal game.

A sobering six-run rout at the hands of eventual champion Oregon State quickly followed and brought their run to an abrupt conclusion. A loss so close to the national championship surely meant heartbreak for those leaving because of graduation or entry into the Major League amateur draft, but for freshmen like Bibona, this deep run in Omaha was an inspiring preview of the next few years.