Sports

Connor Spencer, UC Irvine hope to sing a happy tune

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Connor Spencer began the walk from the locker room to the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha on Monday and couldn't help himself.

"I don't know why, but I had the song, 'Don't Stop Believing' in my head," UC Irvine's first baseman said. "I just started singing it."

None of his teammates even shrugged.

That's the Spencer they know. Hitter, singer, songwriter — in that order.

By the end of the game, the song had even more meaning to Spencer and the Anteaters. A 6-4 loss to Vanderbilt in the College World Series left Irvine on the verge of elimination.

To get another crack at the Commodores, the Anteaters need to complete a Texas two-step. They defeated the Longhorns in the CWS opener Saturday and need to do it again Wednesday to stay alive.

A little noise from Spencer would help.

Spencer's skills cover a lot of territory. He is the Anteaters leading hitter, with a .362 batting average and a team-high 44 runs batted in. He also sings an impressive national anthem.

"I always have these melodies in my head and I'll just start singing them," Spencer said. "Freshman year, the guys started encouraging me to do the anthem. I finally did — and had the game-winning hit that night."

Spencer, who plays the piano, sang in choirs while in high school. That morphed into songwriting that covers several genres but, he said, "always leads back to rock."

He's not sure he could make a career of it, though.

"Oh, the music industry is way difficult," Spencer said.

In his case, more difficult than hitting a curveball.

"Music will always be something that's an escape for me," said Spencer, who was chosen by the New York Yankees in the eighth round of the amateur draft this month.

He needed one after Monday's game. Spencer has one hit in eight at-bats in Irvine's two CWS games, and stranded three runners against Vanderbilt as the Anteaters let a 4-2 lead slip away.

If the Anteaters get past Texas, they will have to defeat Vanderbilt twice to advance to a best-of-three national championship series.

It's a familiar spot. When you find a rock and a hard place, the Anteaters are typically between.

They lost eight of their last night regular-season games and were among the last four teams to slip into the 64-team NCAA playoffs. They were sent to the Corvallis Regional, home of top-ranked Oregon State, and won. They were then shipped to Stillwater, Okla., for a best-of-three super regional against Oklahoma State and won.

Still, Irvine, with its unusual nickname, is considered more a novelty than a contender by some observers.

Even after the Anteaters defeated Texas, the first topic of conversation television announcers delved into before Monday's game was that Irvine had lost to its alumni team at the start of the season.

"We were watching the replay at the hotel and in the first inning the commentator said that," Spencer said. "We were like, 'Are you kidding? Give me a break.' "

Spencer drove in five runs at the regional in Corvallis, two in Irvine's 14-2 victory over Oregon State, and was chosen the regional's most valuable player. In the super regional, he was four for seven in the two victories over Oklahoma State that sent Irvine to the CWS.

Irvine's offense focuses on little ball. A bunt here, a stolen base there, always with the idea of setting the table. But someone has to clear the plates, which is Spencer's job.

The Anteaters have 93 sacrifice bunts. Spencer has one.

"I have worked on bunting since I was a freshman," Spencer said. "I'm an excellent bunter." But, he said, "it's pretty noticeable that I'm not the guy asked to bunt."

Of the 247 RBIs the Anteaters have this season, Spencer and third baseman Taylor Sparks have combined for 81.

"We've had different guys stepping up all year," Spencer said, "[but] when Sparks and I hit, the other guys hit, the rest of the offense gets going."

If they can carry that tune a few more games, Spencer might find another song to sing:

Queen's "We Are the Champions."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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