College Baseball: UCI's Spencer provides ping that sings

A former choir boy, Connor Spencer has delivered sterling renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner before UC Irvine baseball games the previous two seasons. But this year, the junior first baseman said he has preferred to let his singing line drives resonate best throughout the ballpark.

"It was a conscious decision not to sing the anthem this season," said Spencer, a first-team All-Big West Conference performer who leads Big West players with 78 regular-season hits. "I was thoroughly nagged and my teammates pleaded with me to sing. But I had done it my first two seasons and I needed a break. I needed a season off."

Spencer has taken no such sabbatical on the diamond since arriving from Tesoro High. He has been a consistent force in the Anteaters' lineup, with 103 runs batted in and a cumulative .349 average in 598 at-bats spanning 166 games. In more than one-third of those games (65), he has collected more than one hit. He was the Big West batting champion with a .373 average in 2013 and has hit .396 this season since starting the year zero for 19.

A strong defender who has saved multiple errors coming off the bag to field errant throws and scooping throws in the dirt, Spencer leads the UCI regulars this season with a .361 average, as well as a team-best 38 runs batted in heading into the NCAA Corvallis Regional that begins Friday when the Anteaters (35-22) open against UNLV at Oregon State University at 2 p.m.

"He has had in my view, a spectacular career," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the 6-foot-2, 215 veteran, who is expected to be selected in the major league draft in June. "He has been tremendously consistent for three years and was, by the way, one of the difference-makers on this team with his defense. I think he has gone under-appreciated by some, but not by anyone in our program."

Spencer said he prides himself on being consistent. And his work ethic, combined with his natural strength and hand-eye coordination, have been his steady recipe for success.

"I do think I have a gift, or a knack for hitting but at the same time, I have driven myself," Spencer said. "I've always been taught that with great work, comes great success, and with no work comes no success. I always take pride in knowing I've done more work than the guy on the mound."

Though his power is obvious to those who have experienced his bone-crushing handshake, Spencer is known as a line-drive hitter who uses the entire field. He hit his only collegiate home run this season, a statistic some scouts frown upon from a corner infielder.

"Hitting is all about consistency and guys who make the big leagues are the ones who can be the most consistent," Spencer said. "I've never felt pressure to change my game in any way. I'm always trying to hit the ball as hard as I can and, of course, I take pride in going to the opposite field. I have power if I want power and can hit the ball out of the yard. If I go to pro ball, they will work with me to get backspin on the ball and drive more balls out of the park than in the gaps."

Gillespie said he believes Spencer will hit for more power as a professional, but cautioned those who want to tinker too heavily with his sweet left-handed swing.

"If they leave him alone, he will hit .300 wherever he goes," Gillespie said. "But he is plenty strong enough and smart enough to hit home runs."

Spencer, who plays guitar and the piano, also applies his intellect to writing music and poetry, though he has yet to apply a baseball theme to his songs or poems.

"Music has kind of been my escape from everything in life and I always like to put my thoughts on paper," Spencer said. "When I want to get something out, music is the medium I use to express myself."

Soft-spoken in the clubhouse, Spencer is, Gillespie said, a team leader by virtue of his affable personality and his performance.

"Everyone likes to have him on the team and everyone likes to see him come to the plate with a runner on second base," Gillespie said. "He is not a big mouth in the clubhouse, but with what he has done and how he has gone about it, he has everyone's complete respect."

Spencer said he and the Anteaters, who have lost six straight entering their first NCAA regional in three seasons after a run of six straight postseason trips, are still intent on earning some respect in Corvallis.

"I know we're not just here just to have fun," Spencer said by phone from Oregon. "We're coming here to out-energize every team we come up against, including [No. 1 national seed Oregon State, which fills out the four-team regional, along with North Dakota State]. We're going to scratch and claw and compete our hearts out. We want to pillage the village."

At least until the fat lady sings.

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