Orloff one Eck of a shortstop

UC Irvine's Ben Orloff led the nation in sacrifice hits as a freshman last season. Some might say that is fitting, since it could be argued that no baseball player in America has sacrificed more to become one of his team's most indispensable performers.

"With the ability level he has, he shouldn't be making the kind of impact he is in our program," said UCI Coach Dave Serrano, who makes no secret of his admiration for the 5-foot-11, 170-pound shortstop out of Simi Valley High.

"He works harder than anyone in our program and he has made himself the player that he is," Serrano said. "His knowledge of the game is well beyond his years and his passion for the game is unbelievable. He's the David Eckstein of college baseball."

The player Orloff is this season is markedly more productive at the plate.

In 56 games as a freshman, including 42 starts — he opened the season at second base, but started the final 30 games at shortstop — Orloff hit .217. He posted nearly as many sacrifice hits (26) as base hits (33, all of which were singles).

He had at least one sacrifice in 22 games, including three games with at least two.

He had hits in 24 games, with six multiple-hit games. He had 16 RBIs and struck out just 10 times in 152 at-bats.

This season, Orloff, the only Anteater to start all 37 games, leads the team with 50 hits and is hitting .350, heading into today's 2 p.m. opener of a three-game Big West Conference series at UC Santa Barbara.

His bunting skills remain evident in his 15 sacrifice hits, and he remains difficult to fan, having been retired on strikes 12 times in 143 at-bats.

But, already with 13 RBIs and seven doubles, he is almost as likely to drive runners in as move them over this season.

"I worked hard last summer lifting weights and I put on about 15 pounds," said Orloff, who was named the Anteaters' Best Defensive Player and earned the team's Hustle-Attitude-Mentality Award at the 2006 team banquet. "And I worked a lot on my hitting, to be able to drive balls through the gaps and not just hit singles."

When it comes to developing his baseball talent, "work" is seldom the word Orloff chooses.

"The game is still so much fun to me," he said. "I love being able to play baseball every day. Even on our off days, I'll lift weights, then go and hit. It's just something I want to be doing."

On days the No. 18-ranked Anteaters (26-10-1) practice, Orloff, who shaves his head because hair would be one more thing to deal with away from the ballpark, arrives early to take extra hitting and stays after to do more of the same.

"Sometimes people tell me it's like I have no life, because I'm on the baseball field all day," said Orloff, who sometimes, subconsciously, punctuates conversation by flicking his left hand, clinched as if it were holding a bat, outward toward an imaginary pitcher. "I kind of take that as a compliment. Honestly, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. Baseball is awesome, every single day. And I'm the kind of hitter who has to hit every day to feel comfortable.

"I was talking to my roommate the other day and he was asking me why I stay after [practice] so long and hit by myself. I told him that when I'm in the cages, especially hitting by myself, that's when I'm at peace. It's kind of my 'me' time."

Orloff's dedication began well before he can even remember, barely after he was able to stand.

"When he was just able to walk and really keep his balance, he used to take a tennis ball and throw it against the garage door," said Mike Orloff, Ben's father. "He'd throw it, and the ball would bounce back and go through his legs into the neighbor's driveway. He'd just go get it, throw it again, and it would go through his legs again. He started when he was about 18 months old and we'd have to go get him to bring him in. He never got frustrated by it and he always went out there on his own. We eventually had to get a new garage door, because he wore that one out."

Ben Orloff recalled throwing the ball against the garage door as early as age 3.

"I used to spend hours out there," he recalled. "I'd get up early, so I could get about an hour in before I had to go to school."

Orloff was a four-year varsity starter [a school record 111 games] at Simi Valley, which he helped win a CIF Southern Section Division II title in 2004. He hit .463 as a senior in 2005 and stole 27 bases. But, by then, he had already accepted the only scholarship offer he received.

"We went to a showcase to watch a pitcher and another infielder," Serrano recalled. "All of a sudden, we see this little guy hitting ground balls, fielding everything hit near him, sliding all over the field and making things happen. I turned to [assistant coach Sergio Brown] and said 'This is the kind of kid we ought to be bringing into our program.' "

Orloff said he had taken a couple unofficial visits to other schools, but UCI quickly moved to the top of his list.

"I felt I was definitely one of those guys who had to prove himself [at the next level]," Orloff said. "It was really cool to have a program that wanted me."

His savvy and work ethic helped him open the 2006 season as a starter, but Orloff said he definitely had a lot to learn about Division I baseball, especially in the batter's box.

He credits most of his improvement this season to — What else? — vigilance.

"It's just been work," he said. "A lot of hitting off the tee, a lot of work in the weight room and a lot of work with [assistant coach Greg Bergeron].

"Bergeron worked with me about looking for pitches and being more aggressive when I get those pitches," Orloff said. "I definitely have a way better approach at the plate than I did last year. I'm able to look for a pitch and do something with it when I get it. I haven't looked at my stats this year, but I'm happy that I'm taking more quality at-bats and hitting the ball better."

Orloff is flattered by the comparisons to the 5-7 Eckstein, an undersized overachiever who went from being a walk-on at the University of Florida to the MVP of last year's World Series with the champion St. Louis Cardinals.

"[Eckstein] doesn't have the tools some other guys have, so he has to be consistent and do things the right way every day to stay where he's at," Orloff said.

Orloff exemplifies that approach, which helps make him one of the more popular players among his teammates and coaches.

"You can't help but respect the way he goes about his business," Serrano said.

This year, more than ever, it's hard not to respect the results.

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