The alumni games continue to get tougher for the UC Irvine baseball program, which fortified its list of former players after last season's team went 43-18 and was one pitch away from earning a trip to the College World Series.
But after saying goodbye to Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year Matt Summers, Big West Defensive Player of the Year and closer Brian Hernandez and Drew Hillman, who led the team with six home runs and 51 runs batted in, among others, there remains plenty of talent for Hall of Fame Coach Mike Gillespie.
That talent, including first-team all-conference catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, second-team all-conference shortstop D.J. Crumlich, and a pitching staff flush with proven winners, led to a No. 29 ranking in one preseason poll and the No. 2 spot in the Big West coaches' preseason conference predictions.
Gillespie, in his fifth season after extending the Anteaters' NCAA tournament appearance streak to six, is also counting on a handful of 14 freshmen on the roster to help the 'Eaters continue to be one of the most reliable West Coast contenders.
Three times during the six straight postseason appearances, UCI won a regional. It won the 2007 Super Regional to advance to the College World Series and flirted with two additional Super Regional triumphs, before winding up just shy of Omaha.
Last season, UCI nearly upset No. 1 national seed and host Virginia in the Super Regional, but the Cavaliers rallied for a 3-2 ninth-inning walk-off win in the deciding third game to send UCI home, rather than to the game's biggest showcase.
If this team can make a run at Omaha, it will be with an even greater emphasis on pitching and small ball than recent UCI squads. This would not surprise Anteater supporters already familiar with two-strike bunts, squeeze plays, hidden-ball tricks and team earned-run averages among the nation's elite.
"Pitching really has to be the key," said Gillespie, whose mound men posted a combined 2.93 ERA last season with the help of first-year pitching coach Jason Dietrich and newly regulated bats that limited power..
Junior left-hander Matt Whitehouse, sophomore right-hander Andrew Thurman and senior right-hander Crosby Slaught are the projected weekend starters. Sophomores Evan Brock, Mitch Merten and Phil Ferragamo, as well as junior Kyle Hooper figure to add starting depth.
Whitehouse and Thurman, weekend starters much of last season, have been slowed by nagging preseason injuries, as has Hooper (back), Gillespie said. All three are ready to go for the season-opening Urban Invitational in Houston, but without their typical stamina, pitch counts will be held to a minimum.
"I think when we get to it, it will be Whitehouse [Friday], Thurman [Saturday] and Slaught [Sunday]," said Gillespie, who noted Slaught will start Friday's season opener against Alabama State at 9 a.m. PT at Minute Maid Park.
Whitehouse, recovering from a knee cartilage tweak that twice induced swelling, was 4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in a breakthrough 2011 campaign in which he limited hitters to a .207 average in 72 1/3 innings. He was named preseason All-American by CollegeBaseballInsider.com.
Thurman (tender shoulder) was 4-3 with a 3.83 ERA last season, when eight of his 23 appearances were starts.
Slaught, whom Gillespie also expects to start Monday's home opener against UNLV (2 p.m.) was 7-2 with a 3.80 in 2011 and is 16-3 in his career.
Brock, who was 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 63 innings as a freshman in 2010, when he allowed just 34 hits and was an all-regional performer, missed all of 2011 after surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Gillespie said Brock is still about three mph off the 88 mph fastball he threw in 2010, and he is still trying to recapture the consistent feel on his go-to changeup.
Ferragamo (2-0, 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings last season) brings quality experience, as does trusted left-handed sophomore reliever Jimmy Litchfield (2-1, 2.89 ERA with three saves in 43 2/3 innings).
Merten has improved greatly, Gillespie said, while Hooper was 3-0 with a 4.06 ERA last season.
Senior Nick Hoover is another veteran reliever, while Gillespie said junior Race Parmenter, a transfer from Golden West College, opens the season as the closer.
Offensively, Crumlich and Shaeffer anchor five returning starters who also include senior center fielder Christian Ramirez, senior infielder Tommy Reyes and senior first baseman Jordan Fox.
Shaeffer, a career .319 hitter, slipped to .264 with one homer and 31 RBIs last season. But his defense in his first season behind the plate (throwing out 34 of 64 would-be base-stealers), helped him earn MVP honors at the Los Angeles Regional hosted by UCLA. Shaeffer, who hit .388 while earning freshman All-American honors, has 98 career RBIs and eight home runs, tops on the roster. Shaeffer also was an American Baseball Coaches Assn. Golden Glove winner in 2011.
Crumlich hit .300 with 27 RBIs and scored a team-best 51 runs, mostly in the leadoff spot last season. He will shift to the No. 3 hole this season, while continuing to anchor the infield with strong glove work. He and Shaeffer are also the team's most dynamic leaders, Gillespie said.
Fox hit .323 with 25 RBIs last season, while Ramirez, a speedy center fielder, had 32 RBIs and a .282 batting average in his first season at UCI last spring. He shifts from the No. 8 spot to No. 2 in the lineup, behind new leadoff man Reyes.
Reyes (.289 with 29 RBIs in 2011) started 55 games last season, primarily at second base. He begins the season at third, with sophomore Dillon Moyer (just four hits in 28 at-bats as a freshman) gets a shot to start at second.
Fox is projected to hit cleanup with Shaeffer penciled into the No. 5 spot, Gillespie said.
"You can basically flip a coin for the Nos. 6-9 spots in the order," Gillespie said.
Junior Scott Gottschling (.282 in 39 at-bats last season) opens as the starter in right, while Gillespie said Kris Paulino, a freshman out of Tesoro High, and Jeff Stephens, a junior transfer from Sierra Community College, figure to battle for time in left field.
Jerry McClanahan, a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Connor Spencer open as dueling designated hitters, while freshman infielder-catcher Chris Rabago and freshman infielder Taylor Sparks (drafted by Cleveland in the 24th-round last year) may also eventually contribute offensively.