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Marlon Castillo | New University
Marlon Castillo | New University

SKIP: Manager Mike Gillespie is one of college baseball’s best, but is it time for a respectful farewell?

UC Irvine manager Mike Gillespie has been around the block so many times, you’d understand it if he forgot how to get back to his front door. At age 73, his wit is as sharp as it’s ever been, but the Anteaters just aren’t.

That’s why it’s disappointing to see a team that advanced to the College World Series in 2007 fail to do so in their first six seasons under Gillespie, a college baseball hall of famer. Before Gillespie, Dave Serrano was the man at the helm. Back then the Anteaters hit .300 with ease and the pitching staffs were deep. Serrano was a recruiter and a player developer, and is now working to build up the University of Tennessee program in the SEC after taking Cal State Fullerton to three straight Super Regionals and a College World Series. Whether it’s recruitment or player development, lately, something’s not right with the Anteaters.

Sure Taylor Sparks, Dominique Taylor, Ronnie Shaeffer and Connor Spencer are outstanding hitters, but the Anteaters used to be a team that was a tough out from top to bottom.

Senior outfielder Scott Gottschling hit .237 this season. Sophomore Kris Paulino hit .184, starting 24 of the team’s 55 games. Sophomore Jerry McClanahan hit .244 in 44 starts. In 2008, 13 players started at least 25 games for the Anteaters — 12 of them hit over .280, 11 of which hit over .293. This season, just four of 11 guys to start at least 25 games hit over .280 — in college baseball, and especially for Anteaters, that’s not acceptable.

Aside from Jimmy Litchfield, the bullpen was always shaky this season. If Mitch Merten and his 5.14 ERA is your go-to-guy when you need an out late in the game, you’re in trouble.

UCI has wasted the two years of ace Andrew Thurman’s prime. In the past two seasons, the Thurmanator is 14-7 with a 2.95 earned run average (ERA), upping his strikeouts per nine from 6.3 to 8.2 this past season. Along with Thurman was junior college transfer Andrew Morales, who went an astounding 10-0 with a 1.89 ERA in 2013. With two aces, Shaeffer back behind the dish along with Sparks, Spencer and Taylor breaking out offensively, this should have been the year to make it back to the College World Series, but the team’s lack of depth is holding them back.

Two seasons ago, the Anteaters gave Crosby Slaught so much run support that he was 7-2 with a 3.93 ERA. Junior Matt Whitehouse had a 3.29 ERA this season, but with a combination of poor run support and blown relief efforts, the lefty finished 5-6.

In the past two seasons, the Anteaters are 14-27 on the road. In 2008, UCI was 22-10 in away games. They once were a team that could beat anyone, anywhere. Now, they’ve won 65 games in two seasons after 82 wins the two seasons before.

If the men’s basketball team had been knocked out of the Big West Tournament in the first round this season, Coach Russell Turner wouldn’t be in the hot seat, because he’s bringing in a 7-foot-5-inch center and keeps recruiting. This team is in the top 25 annually, but besides the Thurmans and Sparks’ of the world, why are the Anteaters failing to fill out a respectable lineup card with decent hitters six through nine? Where is the bullpen? Where is the depth?

Gillespie has brought in Connor Spencer, Dominique Taylor and Taylor Sparks, but compare that row of hitters to D.J. Crumlich, Casey Stevenson, Jeff Cusick, Francis Larson, Drew Hillman and Brian Hernandez in 2010. When Sean Madigan and Jordan Fox are your weakest links, hitting in the .270 to .280 range, that’s when you know good baseball is being played at Cicerone. The 2013 lineup was a shadow of what they used to be. Opponents used to hate facing the Anteaters. In 2009, opposing pitchers had a 6.49 ERA against UCI — this season, just 4.83.

Gillespie is a likeable guy. He loves the weather in Irvine and playing small ball with bunts and hit-and-runs, but not everyone buys into his coaching. Drew Hillman, now retired after two seasons of Single A ball in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, wasn’t a fan of Gillespie after he was told he’d be playing third base for the Anteaters in 2011. Then Gillespie brought in junior college transfer Brian Hernandez, pushing Hillman to left field.

Last offseason, Dillon Moyer, the son of Jamie Moyer, transferred to UC San Diego, where he hit .298 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association this season. Moyer was once referred to as a “big league prospect” by Gillespie, but rarely saw consistent opportunities behind D.J. Crumlich and Tommy Reyes in recent years at UCI.

Jordan Leyland helped send UCI to the Super Regionals in 2011, then transferred to Azusa Pacific University, where he bombed 20 home runs and hit .441. While it was much weaker competition that skewed his statistics, the Anteaters suffered last season without Leyland’s bat in the lineup.

Irvine lost six of their last eight games at the end of the season, destroying all postseason hopes. Against Fullerton, UCI’s bullpen blew two straight games on walk-off home runs. Against Riverside, the Anteaters lost three straight games in late March to start Big West play 0-3.

All Gillespie could say after UCI lost their fifth straight game last Wednesday to USC was, “I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed.” The five game losing streak was the longest since 2004 for UCI.

On the last day of the season, Irvine had a chance to end their last season series with a sweep and take sole possession of fourth place in the Big West. In a 2-2 game in the ninth, Evan Brock allowed an RBI triple, and then went down in order in the bottom of the ninth — without a fight.

At some point or another, UCI has to decide if Gillespie is the right fit for the program or not. While budgetary constraints make it tough to see a big-time collegiate coach ditching a Big 12 or SEC team to coach the Anteaters, the draw of facing off against Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton on a yearly basis would bring in a number of candidates when the job opening eventually frees up.

Gillespie’s job security is a big question mark. Does the athletic department allow him to stay as long as he sees fit, even if the Anteaters continue their decline? The magic of the 2007 College World Series team is dwindling, and it might be time for Gillespie to consider retirement. When your team is squandering leads, having trouble finding ways to win and recruitment is no longer what it once was — it’s just not Anteater baseball.

Gillespie deserves all the respect in the world for his exceptional career. But this is more of a philosophical question. Would you fire Phil Jackson if he came back to coach the Lakers and missed three straight postseasons in the last years of Kobe’s career? Maybe.

Do you fire Mike Scioscia if the Angels miss out on October baseball once again this season? Probably.

Do you fire Gillespie if the recruits just aren’t biting anymore and winning just isn’t coming as easy as it used to?

If Gillespie believes he has a College World Series team ahead of him, and the players believe their skipper can take them to Omaha, it’ll make for a hell of a story. If they’re not all on board and the players don’t respond to their manager well, it might be time for a respectful farewell.

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