Anteaters Start Behind the Pack
Freshman Keston Hiura drove in a career-best four runs, going 2 for 4, including hitting his third home run of the year to lead a struggling Anteater squad to its first win of the season.
After opening the season with six consecutive losses, UC Irvine’s baseball team is off to their worst start since the program’s revival in 2002. UCI has seen wins slip away as they have had leads in four out of their first seven games.
The offense hasn’t been the issue for UCI, as their team owns a respectable team batting average of .241 and leads the Big West in home runs with seven. The Anteaters find themselves ahead of the pack considering Coach Mike Gillespie’s “death by small ball” tactic that was made famous during last year’s College World Series.
The issue this season for Coach Gillespie’s staff has been pitching out of the bullpen. The Eater’s bullpen has squandered good starts for front starters Elliot Surrey, Matt Esparaza and Evan Manarino in their opening series against the Fresno State. In the first series against Fresno State, the ‘Eaters lost each of the three games of the series in the later inning. The Bulldogs walked off the field on opening night off last year’s Big West saves leader, Sam Moore, and followed up that performance with two consecutive huge seventh innings to send the ‘Eaters home winless.
In their first series against Fresno, starting pitchers Surrey, Esparaza and Manarino combined for a 3.27 era by allowing four earned runs in eleven innings of work. The offense was led by redshirt sophomore Andrew Martinez who leads the Big West Conference with four home runs and has a team-high eight runs batted in. The ‘Eaters offense has been sparked by an All-American freshman out of Valencia, Keston Hiura who is hitting a solid .292 with a pair of home runs and five runs batted in. The combo of Martinez and Hiura combine for 17 of the 25 runs scored by the ‘Eaters and their hot-hitting looks to jump-start the team. Veteran junior, Mikey Duarte is leading the team with a .421 batting average and .542 on base percentage.
The ‘Eaters traveled to Cal to face the Golden Bears this past weekend for a four-game series including a doubleheader on Saturday. The ‘Eaters lost the series opener early as the Anteater’s bats couldn’t get going after Surrey allowed three runs in the bottom of the first. The ‘Eaters dropped the game 6-1. Game one of the doubleheader at UC Berkley got away from the Anteaters late as a five-run 5th inning was enough to burst the game wide open and the ‘Eaters were downed 10-3. The ‘Eaters bats struggled the second game of the doubleheader and they were held to only one run on four hits dropping the game, and the series 4-1.
This slow start for the ‘Eaters is rather surprising, as they made a deep run in last years College World Series and came into the season ranked 33rd in the Nation. With four big contributing pieces of last year’s team gone (Chris Rabago, Taylor Sparks, Connor Spencer and Ander Morales), Coach Gillespie looks for some new leadership inside the clubhouse. Senior Jerry McClanahan and Jonathan Munoz were expected to carry over some of the College World Series magic, but have yet to get going as they have only three hits in 27 collective at bats. The preseason predictions had the Anteaters competing in the top four of the Big West Conference and they currently sit last with their 0-6 start.
The Anteaters look to shake off some of the rust and gain more of that College World Series magic as they host Tennessee this upcoming weekend for a four-game home stand. Hopefully the ‘Eaters can carry over some of the momentum of the last start by Manarino, who has carried over his confidence from his performance in the College World Series and is emerging as the Anteaters prolific ace.
The Anteaters next game is Friday, Feb. 27 against Tennessee where Surrey will take the mound against Tennessee’s Bret Marks, who has yet to allow a run in 9 innings of work this season. The Tennessee Volunteers come in with a 2-2 record and will close their four game road trip at Anteater Ballpark.