UCI aims to reload

While nine of the top 12 hitters from a year ago return, much of the discussion about the 2011 UC Irvine baseball team involves those who are no longer in the clubhouse.

Among the veteran standouts drafted last June were five core seniors who all went to the College World Series in 2007, a Super Regional in 2008, and were on the first UCI team to win a Big West Conference title, play host to a regional and earn the No.1 ranking in 2009. The group consisting of pitchers Danny Bibona, Eric Pettis and Christian Bergman, first baseman Jeff Cusick and catcher Francis Larson, then capped the 2010 season with the program's fifth straight trip to the NCAA Regionals.

But in addition to the aforementioned offensive firepower, fifth-year senior Sean Madigan, who was a freshman All-American in the storybook 2007 season and the lone remnant to that roster, said there is something else that has returned.

"This is the first time we haven't been ranked in the preseason [top 25] in four years, which is good," said Madigan, who was granted a medical redshirt after sitting out the 2008 campaign with a knee injury and is expected to start in right field when the Anteaters open Friday at home in the first of a scheduled three-game series against Nevada. "I think that's a good thing for us, because we can finally play with that chip on our shoulder because we have to prove ourselves again."

UCI was ranked No. 34 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, and picked to finish second in the Big West, behind heavily favored returning champion Cal State Fullerton.

The proof for this team, is clearly in the lineup, where senior third baseman Brian Hernandez, a first-team All-Big West performer, anchors what figures to be a potent batting order in the No. 3 hole. Hernandez, who is also being called upon to be the team's closer this season, had 44 runs batted in in 2010, when he hit .322 with four home runs and 19 doubles for a squad that finished 39-21, 17-7 and second in the Big West.

Junior first baseman Jordan Leyland and senior left fielder Drew Hillman, who both made the all-regional team after UCI was the last team eliminated by future College World Series finalist UCLA, figure to hit fourth and fifth, respectively, Coach Mike Gillespie said.

Leyland, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, hit .301 with two homers and 13 RBIs last season, then played in the Cape Cod All-Star game and was the league's playoff MVP over the summer. He and junior Jordan Fox replace Jeff Cusick (.379 with eight homers, 21 doubles and 62 RBIs last season), who is now in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Leyland figures to be the primary designated hitter.

Hillman, a former All-American at Orange Coast College, hit .352 with four homers and 19 RBIs last season.

Junior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer (.318 with three homers and 31 RBIs), who was a freshman All-American after hitting a team-best .388 in 2009, steps in for Larson, the 'Eaters' career home run leader with 25.

Junior D.J. Crumlich returns at shortstop after hitting .284 with 16 RBIs last season, while junior Tommy Reyes begins the season at second base, in place of Casey Stevenson (drafted by the New York Yankees). Crumlich had 30 RBIs as a freshman in 2009, when Reyes hit .348 in 32 games and earned honorable mention in all-conference voting.

Junior Christian Ramirez, who redshirted last season after hitting .392 with 16 stolen bases in 171 at-bats on his way to All-Orange Empire Conference recognition in 2009 at Cypress College, is set to open in center field.

Senior Jon Hurst (.342 in 79 at-bats last season), is expected to see plenty of action in the outfield and possibly behind the plate, while middle infielder Dillon Moyer, the son of veteran major league pitcher Jamie Moyer, is a freshman who could make an impact, Gillespie said.

Fox, seven for eight in stolen-base attempts in his career, is set to leadoff, with Crumlich slated in the No, 2 hole.

Hernandez as closer typifies a theme of novelty for the UCI pitching staff, for which senior Nick Hoover is the only returner who displayed consistent effectiveness in 2010.

Evan Brock, 6-4 with a 3.14 earned-run average last season, when he emerged as a freshman pitching star, is out for the year after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.

Last season's entire weekend rotation of Bibona (a two-time Big West Pitcher of the Year and All-American with a 31-7 career record), Bergman (23-12 in his career) and Pettis (22-10 with 40 career saves) is now in the pro ranks, as is Kyle Necke, who led the staff with seven saves last season.

Adding stability is redshirt junior Crosby Slaught, who missed last season with an elbow problem. He was 8-0 with a 4.62 ERA in 2009, when he made 16 starts, mostly on Sundays.

Slaught, who had added a cutter-slider to his repertoire, is scheduled to start on Sundays, following junior Matt Summers on Friday and sophomore Kyle Hooper on Saturday.

"He's a good college pitcher and if he adds two mph, he's a pro," Gillespie said of Slaught.

"I think the single most important thing in the whole deal is Summers," Gillespie said of the former two-way player who hit .343 in 35 at-bats last season, but has been relieved of his outfield chores. "We decided in January to try to simplify things and make pitching the focal point for him. He's a spectacular athlete and he is arguably our best outfielder."

But Gillespie, entering his fourth season at UCI, his 24th as a Division I head coach, who needs 11 wins to reach 900 at the Division I level, said Summers has electric potential on the mound.

"He has that pro stuff and he can be dominant," Gillespie said of Summers, who in 30 2/3 innings last season, was 2-2 with an 8.51 ERA and allowed 40 hits and 18 walks while striking out 32. "The issue for him has always been command."

Hooper (a 7.61 ERA in 23 2/3 innings as a freshman, when opponents hit .421 against him with 45 hits) has improved greatly, Gillespie said.

Hoover (2-0 with a 2.48 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 29 innings) is a candidate to start midweek games.

Hernandez, who hasn't pitched since high school, will use extreme competitiveness and an ability to throw strikes to try to handle save situations, Gillespie said.

Andy Lines, a sophomore left-hander, should fill a key role in relief, where sophomore Matt Whitehouse also figures in the mix.

Freshmen right-handers Andrew Thurman and Phil Ferragamo, the latter a 6-8, 200-pounder, as well as freshmen lefties Tyler Abbott and Jimmy Litchfield, could also develop into strong contributors for a staff under the guidance of first-year pitching coach Jason Dietrich. Dietrich, the former director of operations, steps in for Ted Silva, who is now at Loyola Marymount.

"I don't sense that there's a lack of mentality," Gillespie said of the overall mindset of his team. "Hey, we haven't played yet, so no one knows what we're going to be. But I'm excited about it."

UCI opens conference play April 1, at home against Cal State Northridge. The three-game series against Cal State Fullerton is on the road, April 8-10.

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