UCI baseball team's season special

It is both an extreme compliment and a great injustice that the prevailing thought lingering from the 2011 UC Irvine baseball season is disappointment.

The Anteaters, after all, overcame great skepticism to come within one pitch of reaching the program's second College World Series. And Coach Mike Gillespie spoke all postseason about how this team, perhaps as much as any other of his 24 Division I squads, flirted with the fruition of its true potential.

It was a team that lost three All-American pitchers, constituting its weekend rotation and closer, from the 2010 unit that went 39-21 and lost to UCLA in the Los Angeles Regional.

In addition, expected returning ace Evan Brock, who will be a sophomore next spring, went down early last summer, requiring arm surgery that kept him out the entire campaign.

Four position players and another bullpen arm were drafted from the 2010 squad, though nine of the top 12 hitters returned in 2011.

Still, a near-vacant pitching lineup, as well as the departure of respected pitching coach Ted Silva, helped lower expectations and prompt Gillespie to soften a schedule that was RPI challenged.

Then junior Matt Summers blossomed into the program's fourth straight Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year and sophomore Matt Whitehouse emerged from obscurity to provide an above-average arm on Saturdays.

Crosby Slaught returned from arm surgery to add seven wins to his 16-3 career record and freshman Andrew Thurman made eight starts and went 4-3 in a rotation for which sophomore Kyle Hooper (3-0) made six starts.

Hooper finished with a staff-worst 4.06 earned-run average as first-year pitching coach Jason Dietrich helped guide the staff to an astounding 2.93 ERA.

The starting lineup, which changed only due to brief bouts with injuries, produced just more than 94% of the team's 324 runs batted in and helped compile a .296 team average.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the defense that ranked sixth in the country heading into the gut-wrenching Super Regional at Virginia, the No. 1 national seed that entered the best-of-three series 52-9, became a third strength for a roster that also boasted plenty of strong intangibles.

Summers, named second-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball and third-team All-American by Baseball America, provided a final-weekend exclamation point to a 24-4 home campaign by tossing the program's fourth no-hitter.

Summers was drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Twins and is expected to sign, but not before his grunting deliveries on Friday nights helped UCI improve to 24-0 in Big West conference-opening games the last three seasons.

Seniors Brian Hernandez, Drew Hillman and Sean Madigan also capped distinguished careers with all-conference recognition.

Hernandez, a two-time first-team All-Big West third baseman, was also the conference Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best defenders in the country, though he had not played the position before 2010. Hernandez, diving to his left to snag would-be hits, and charging in to bare-hand and throw to first to negate dozens more potential hits, also added closer to his duties.

Despite having not pitched since high school, he recorded 12 saves and three wins.

Hillman whacked five homers and drove in 51 to lead the club. The former Orange Coast College All-American's blasts included a walk-off two-run job that just cleared the left-field fence in an 11-inning home triumph April 19 against San Diego. Another was a bleacher-clearing solo shot that awakened a then-moribund offense in UCI's Game 2 win at Charlottesville. Gillespie said that "gargantuan" dinger stirred memories of former USC and major league slugger Dave Kingman.

Madigan, the lone remaining link to the 2007 run to Omaha, led the regulars with a .418 on-base percentage and reached in 34 straight games. And the second-team all-conference pick's left-handed howitzer in right also provided a few highlights.

Shortstop D.J. Crumlich, catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, first baseman Jordan Fox, center fielder Christian "Titi" Ramirez and second baseman Tommy Reyes, all juniors, provided consistent production at the plate and in the field.

Crumlich, should he not sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted him in the 38th round, figures to once again contend for the Brooks Wallace Award that goes to the nation's top shortstop in 2012. He was a second-team all-conference choice.

And Shaeffer, a first-team all-conference honoree, returns to defend his title as the nation's best at throwing out would-be base-stealers. He broke out of a late-season hitting slump to earn Most Outstanding Player honors at the Los Angeles Regional in which UCI swept its three games to advance to the program's third Super Regional in five seasons.

Freshman Jimmy Litchfield (2-1, 2.89 ERA), sophomore Andy Lines (5-2, 2.57) and freshman Phil Ferragamo (2-0, 2.03) are among those who provide promise for an even better pitching staff next season.

And sophomore Scott Gottschling and freshman Dillon Moyer join a talented incoming recruiting class as those anxious to fill in the gaps in left, right, third base and possibly designated hitter, where junior Jordan Leyland just might take his four homers and 44 RBIs off to the pro ranks as a 44th-round pick by Tampa Bay.

So, as the memory of the Anteaters leaving the diamond after Virginia's ninth-inning comeback in Game 3 Monday fades, the memories of the many accomplishments this 43-18 squad achieved will, hopefully, come more clearly into focus.

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