UC Irvine first baseman Connor Spencer said some might have interpreted Coach Mike Gillepsie's preseason address to his players as lowering the bar. Instead, it lowered the boom.
"Skip told us we were going to go 5-55," recalled Spencer, who is among those who have helped put the Anteaters (38-23) just two postseason wins away from the five necessary to propel the program to its second College World Series. "That kind of lit a fire under our butts."
After a May 9 victory at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then ranked in the top five in various national polls, UCI was 34-14, 15-1 in the Big West Conference and leaps and bounds above the modest expectations prompted by the return of only one proven pitcher and two consistently productive hitters from a 2013 team that failed to make the postseason for the second straight season.
Then that aforementioned fire turned to flames, as Gillespie's guys lost their final eight conference games to drop to third place and, some believed, out of the postseason. The late-season collapse rendered them one of the final four teams to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Regionals.
But all that changed with a whirlwind weekend in Corvallis, Ore. where the 'Eaters twice defeated No. 1 national seed Oregon State to win the four-team regional and advance to the program's fourth Super Regional since 2007.
What would be UCI's second trip to Omaha is at stake beginning Friday, when it meets Oklahoma State (48-16) in the opener of a best-of-three series at the Cowboys' Allie P. Reynolds Stadium.
Friday's game begins at 6:30 p.m. Pacific time, with Saturday's scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday's game, if necessary, is at 6 p.m.
All three games will be televised on ESPNU.
Sophomore Elliot Surrey (7-4 with a 2.13 earned-run average), who earned a win and a save against the Beavers to help UCI advance, is scheduled to start Friday against Cowboys' ace Jon Perrin (8-4, 2.23).
On paper, the matchup appears to be power against finesse, as the Cowboys rank No. 8 nationally with 52 home runs, to just 12 for UCI, which had more runners reach via sacrifice, walk or being hit by a pitch (36) than by hits (29) in its four regional games.
UCI is also led by a pitching staff that has a 2.82 ERA, spearheaded by senior Andrew Morales, a first-team All-American and Big West Pitcher of the Year.
Morales (10-2, 1.64), who started two games and earned one win in the regional to snap a two-start losing streak, is scheduled to take the ball on Saturday against OSU's Tyler Buffett (2-1, 2.95 in 10 starts).
Spencer, the Corvallis Regional Most Outstanding Player, continued his fine season in the Northwest. The junior was six for 15 with five runs batted in. The first-team all-conference performer leads the team in batting average (.364), hits (84) RBIs (43) and doubles (15). His 35 runs rank second on the roster.
Junior third baseman Taylor Sparks also hit .400 in Corvallis with a home run and his eighth triple, which is tied for the NCAA lead.
Joining Sparks on the all-regional team were Morales, junior shortstop Chris Rabago, sophomore second baseman Grant Palmer and junior right fielder Kris Paulino, who hit a grand slam in the first win over Oregon State.
Sparks, the Big West Co-Player of the Year in 2013, is batting .297 with a team-best 27 extra-base hits to go with his 34 RBIs. Switched from the cleanup spot to leadoff for the regional, he has struck out 67 times in 232 at-bats.
Junior catcher Jerry McClanahan, who has a nine-game hitting streak, hit .444 in Corvallis (four for nine) with four RBIs and four walks. The second-team all-conference performer has reached safety in his last 12 games to lift his average to .325 and his 35 RBIs rank second on the team.
Sophomore designated hitter Jonathan Munoz, a first-team all-conference honoree, is batting .302 with 16 RBIs.
Junior Sam Moore, a finalist for the Stopper of the Year award, has an NCAA-leading 23 saves, one off the single-season record set by UCLA's David Berg last season. But he has blown his last three save chances, has not had a save since May 9, and appears to have lost the confidence of Gillespie, who used Surrey to close out Monday's regional-clinching triumph. Moore allowed two hits in one-third of an inning in his only appearance in Corvallis.
Oklahoma State, seeking its 20th CWS bid in its 40th NCAA tournament appearance, enters with a .278 batting average, eight points better than UCI, and a 3.27 ERA. The Cowboys earned their 31st conference championship this season, then defeated Cal State Fullerton to win the Stillwater Regional.
OSU, coached by Josh Holiday, the brother of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holiday, are 25-8 at home at their 4,000-seat stadium this season.
OSU is led offensively by Zach Fish (.312, 11 homers, 48 RBIs), Tanner Krietmeier (.276, nine homers, 48 RBIs and 47 runs), Gage Green (.322, 30 RBIs and 20 stolen bases) and Tim Arakawa (.265, 44 RBIs and 15 steals).
The Cowboys' bullpen is a combined 31-2 with 21 saves and a 2.39 ERA. Pacing the relief corps are seniors Vince Wheeland (10-0, 1.53 in 30 appearances) and Brendan McCurry (5-0, 2.39 with 19 saves and 53 strikeouts in 46 innings).
UCI swept its 2007 Super Regional at Wichita State, but lost in three games at LSU (2008) and Virginia (2012). UCI was three outs away from sweeping LSU, before the Tigers rallied to advance to Omaha. The 'Eaters were then one strike away from upsetting Virginia, then the No. 1 national seed, before allowing two runs in the bottom of the ninth in the third game in Charlottesville.