Experienced Pitching Staff Crucial for ’Eaters

The ‘Eaters boast one of the most formidable and threatening pitching teams in the nation.

Andrew Thurman knows what he wants as a junior — it’s Omaha or bust. Despite all of the notoriety, a no-hitter and chatter circulating of Thurman being an elite pitcher likely to forego his senior season next year for the Major League Baseball Draft in June, winning is Thurman’s priority.

UC Irvine’s baseball team will lean on Thurman’s arm, just as they have in years past with aces Matt Summers, Danny Bibona and Scott Gorgen.

“Pitching is clearly the strength of this team. We’re counting on pitching,” Gillespie said last Thursday at the ballpark.

UCI went from 43-18 in 2011 to 31-25 in 2012. It was the fourth worst record in Gillespie’s 25-year-long, Hall-of-Fame, Division I coaching career. It was also the first time that his Anteaters had a losing record on the road, finishing 6-14 in away games.

Much of that responsibility falls on the team’s offense, though; the pitching staff posted a dismal 3.25 earned run average in 2012, tossing eight complete games and four shutouts.

In comparison, a 2010 staff that included notable MLB Draft picks Danny Bibona, Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis had a 3.98 staff ERA, tossing four complete games and two shutouts. Last season was one for the ages for the Anteaters’ pitching staff, but without run support, it went to waste.

“It was a big disappointment,” Gillespie said. “If our players play hard, we shouldn’t be on their case, but it doesn’t make you feel okay when we lose. I didn’t have an issue with the players [last season], but in the end, we’re in fourth place and putting our gear away when 60 teams are playing the next week.”

On opening day last season, Thurman was competing for a role in UCI’s pitching rotation; this year, he’s the unquestioned ace. Thurman tossed three shutouts, including a no-hitter at Long Beach State in 2012. He went 8-3 with a 2.66 earned run average, allowing 0.96 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) in 98 innings of work. The Anteaters’ Friday starter, Thurman returns to the hill on Feb.  15 to face Baylor at Cicerone Field in Irvine.

“Thurman is your prototypical right-handed pitcher,” Gillespie said. “He doesn’t just have control, he has command. Control is throwing strikes. Command is throwing quality strikes. He has a great future ahead of him and is handling the draft well. That can weigh on a guy. I don’t see that in him.”

Along with a cut-fastball, changeup and curveball, Thurman added a slider to his arsenal over the off-season, which will serve as his new punch-out pitch.

Behind Thurman is a stable, mixed with experience and raw potential. Coming off of a redshirt, junior season Matt Whitehouse is expected to compete as the no. 2 starting pitcher, taking the ball on Saturdays. Whitehouse is a crafty lefty. As a sophomore, he registered the fifth lowest earned run average (2.12) in UCI baseball history, and was 4-0. Whitehouse had 62 strikeouts and surrendered just 15 walks in 72.1 innings.

Seniors Kyle Hooper and Evan Brock are both fighting to regain zip on their fastballs and attain the Sunday starter slot. Hooper threw 27.2 innings in 2012, allowing just four earned runs. As a spot starter and relief pitcher, Hooper tossed one shutout and was 3-1 as a junior, but experienced some elbow problems. Like Hooper, Brock’s innings were limited in 2012. Coming off of an unpredictable shoulder surgery, Brock was 2-1 with a 2.12 ERA in 34 innings. Combined, the two started just five games in 2012, and were effective in short outings. Whoever handles a higher pitch count better will likely become the go-to guy on Sundays.

“I doubt we’ve had this many solid guys [on staff since I’ve been here],” senior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, who has caught Bibona, Summers and Thurman in his time at UCI, said. “We have eight guys who could be starters. And our bullpen is solid. If Thurman can give us six solid innings, we have a guy for the seventh, the eighth and the ninth to close the door. That’s huge for us.”

In the bullpen, the Anteaters are deep. Senior closer Race Parmenter recorded eight saves and threw 37.2 innings in 2012. At least to start the season, Parmenter is the man in the ninth inning.

Litchfield returns for his junior season, having made 63 appearances in his first two seasons at UCI. In 45 innings last year, Litchfield posted a 3.60 ERA.

“Litch is a bulldog on the mound,” Thurman said. “He just goes out and throws his game. He shows what he can do on the field, and doesn’t let anything affect him. No situation is too big for him.”

As a freshman, Litchfield appeared in the second-most games in UCI history and was called upon in big roles, including the 2011 Super Regional at Virginia. Incoming freshman Elliot Surrey, according to Gillespie, is a clone of Litchfield.

“[Surrey] won’t pitch as much as Litchfield did as a freshman, but he’ll be a part of some big games,” Gillespie said. “He’s poised and really advanced for his age.”

“He’s not scared of anyone,” Litchfield added, impressed.

Junior righty Mitch Merten has taken leaps and bounds throughout the off-season, impressing his manager enough to bring him into the starting pitching mix.

“Merten has gotten better and better,” Gillespie said. “He’s throwing better strikes, his slider has better bite and he will pitch in critical roles for us.”

Another righty, Andrew Morales, joins the ’Eaters as a junior. Morales was the California Community College Pitcher of the Year last year for Rio Hondo. In two seasons at Rio Hondo, Morales was 21-1, with a 2.42 ERA.

Gillespie also expects junior Phillip Ferragamo, who threw 65.2 innings and made eight starts in 2012, along with Andy Lines, to make contributions out of the bullpen this season. Once reliable, Lines had a 2.57 ERA as a sophomore, but was erratic last season, earning just 1.2 innings after surrendering seven earned runs early in the season. He returns for his senior year.

Taking over the staff is rookie pitching coach Danny Bibona. Three seasons ago, Bibona carved up hitters as a senior in Anteater blue pinstripes. Bibona was an All-American all four years at UCI, and still holds the program’s career strikeouts record. A two-time Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year, Bibona was drafted twice by the St. Louis Cardinals — in the eighth round in 2009 and in the 16th round in 2010. After a career-ending shoulder injury, Bibona retired and is back at UCI, serving as the squad’s pitching coach.

“That traitor, [former pitching coach Jason Dietrich], left us for Fullerton,” Gillespie said, joking of the staff vacancy that his former ace filled.

“[Bibona] was really unlucky,” Gillespie said. “It was timely for us that his career ended. The pitchers like him and can relate to him. He has the confidence and assertiveness to not be one of the guys. He’s in command, smart and a student of the game.”

Thurman and Litchfield both visited UCI as seniors in high school to watch Bibona deal on Friday nights at Cicerone Field. Just three years later, he’s their pitching coach. While they say that Bibona is more laid back and less rigid than Dietrich, they say that Bibona speaks their language and is easy to listen to.

“We’ve seen his reputation in action,” Litchfield said of Bibona. “He’s who I looked up to when I came here. There are huge shoes to fill.”