College Baseball: Revenge on Anteaters' minds

Daily Pilot

There was a time when seeing its school logo on an ESPN telecast of the NCAA Regional pairings would spur a robust roar of excitement from UC Irvine baseball players.

And while the postseason routine has lost a bit of its novelty for the Anteaters, who are making their fifth straight regional appearance and their sixth in the last seven years, there was some added emotion to go with the understated murmur Sunday that accompanied the discovery of this year's assignment in the Los Angeles Regional.

UCI (37-19) will meet defending champion LSU (40-20) Friday at 2 p.m. in the opener of the regional hosted by UCLA (43-13) at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Kent State (39-23) is the other team in the double-elimination event from which one team will advance to a Super Regional.

The eight winners of the best-of-three Super Regionals will advance to the College World Series.

UCLA, the No. 6 national seed, ranked No. 8 in Monday's Baseball America poll and coached by former UCI head man John Savage, will meet Kent State at 6 p.m. Friday.

The regional will conclude Sunday, or Monday if a second title game is needed.

UCI is ranked No. 21 and LSU is No. 23.

UCI is the No. 3 seed in the regional. LSU is the No. 2 seed and Kent State is the No. 4 seed.

It's the second straight year UCI will face the reigning NCAA title holder to open a regional. But this one is more noteworthy than last year's meeting with Fresno State at Anteater Ballpark, because it is a rematch of the 2008 Super Regional in which LSU rallied from the precipice of elimination to win in Baton Rouge and advance to Omaha.

"Bring 'em on," UCI senior All-American pitcher Danny Bibona said of the Tigers, who trailed, 7-4, with three outs left in a Game 2 Super Regional game they rallied to win, 9-7 in 2008. LSU then won the deciding game, 21-7, to deny UCI a second consecutive trip to the College World Series.

"Revenge," added Bibona, who was in line for the victory in the aforementioned Game 2 against LSU. Bibona, expected to return after a three-week absence due to inflamed rib muscles, struck out 14 in 7 2/3 innings to earn the win in last year's home regional opener against Fresno State. "It will be cool to get a shot to play [LSU] in California."

UCI Coach Mike Gillespie, who has guided 18 of his 23 college teams to the postseason (15 in 20 seasons at USC), also said the LSU rematch will not hurt his team's motivation.

"Everyone figured we'd go to either UCLA or Arizona State, so going to UCLA was anticlimactic," Gillespie said. "Then, all of sudden, we learn we're playing LSU and it changes the dynamic for everybody. It throws an element of real excitement into it and I'm kind of glad [the players] would be excited."

The UCI roster includes 11 players who were in the UCI dugout in Baton Rouge. Nine of those are seniors looking to go out with a bang.

"It's great to be playing LSU," UCI senior first baseman Jeff Cusick said. "It's a great team to play. People are on the lookout for them. They were the national champions last year and they are kind of college baseball history [with six national titles]."

UCI won regionals hosted by Texas (2007) and Nebraska (2008), and was eliminated by Virginia in the first regional it hosted last year. The Anteaters lost their only two games in regionals at Notre Dame (2004) and Pepperdine (2006, including an opening loss to UCLA).

Many pundits termed last year's Irvine Regional the toughest of the 16 groupings and some have given the Los Angeles Regional the same distinction this season.

"It's clearly a strong regional, to be understated," Gillespie said. "But it's exciting, it really is. I'm looking forward to it."

LSU, the Southeastern Conference Tournament champion, will be on the road in a regional for the first time since 1989. The Tigers finished fifth in the SEC West this season.

UCLA began the season 22-0 and has set a school single-season record for wins. The Bruins finished second in the Pac 10, behind ASU, the No. 1 national seed.

Kent State's Golden Flashes won five games in three days to claim the Mid-American Conference Tournament title.

Gillespie said he would determine his pitching plan today. But either Bibona (9-2 with a 2.10 earned-run average and 100 strikeouts in 90 innings), or senior right-hander Christian Bergman (8-3 with a 3.82 ERA, including a current streak of 24 1/3 straight scoreless innings) is expected to start against LSU.

Additional UCI starters include senior Eric Pettis (9-3 with six saves and a 3.37 ERA) and freshman Evan Brock (5-4, 2.96 ERA).

Cusick leads UCI in batting average (.379), home runs (eight) and runs batted in (56).

LSU has 75 homers as a team this season, including four players with at least nine. Senior Matt Gaudet has 19 homers and 69 RBIs.

LSU has a 5.52 team ERA.

UCI, with a team ERA of 3.79, has hit 33 home runs as a team.

UCI has won 17 of its last 23 and has won its last nine Friday games.

Should UCI emerge from the regional, it would play the winner of the Fullerton Regional that includes Cal State Fullerton, Stanford, New Mexico and Minnesota.

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