College Baseball: UCI falling from elite

A popular slogan asserts that tradition never graduates. But for UC Irvine baseball, its status as an elite program seems to be fading faster than it is being fortified.

For the second straight season, the Anteaters failed to qualify for the 64-team NCAA Regional field, a feat they accomplished six straight times from 2006 to 2011. That postseason run included three regionals titles and one super regional triumph, the latter creating an appearance in the 2007 College World Series.

And as those glory days recede into nostalgia, the state of the program appears to reflect more of a downward trend than a sudden resurrection.

Next year's roster will likely include just four players who have competed in the postseason and none of those have swung a bat on the collegiate game's biggest stage.

Offensive stars Taylor Sparks and Connor Spencer lead a handful of established position players set to anchor the 2014 Anteaters, who may potentially benefit from All-American pitcher Andrew Morales, should he not be plucked by the professional ranks.

Shortstop Chris Rabago, catcher Jerry McClanahan and center fielder Dominique Taylor (should he not sign professionally), as well as pitchers Evan Brock and Mitch Merten bring experience and talent to the ranks of the returners.

But should Taylor get drafted and sign, the outfield would be a virtual void, and the pitching ranks also appear to be in grave need of fortification.

Add to that some noteworthy health issues with three of the five early signees and Coach Mike Gillespie and his staff would appear to be battling long odds to restore the somewhat recent luster to the program.

The 2013 campaign was, Gillespie said, as frustrating as he has ever had in 26 seasons as a Division I skipper. Despite sharing the Big West Conference lead in team batting average with champion Cal State Fullerton and ranking third in the conference in earned-run average, the 'Eaters (33-22, 15-12 in conference) finished tied for fourth place. UCI, ranked in at least one national top-25 poll for 12 weeks, lost six of its last eight and nine of its last 13, missing a chance to be one of conference's two at-large regional invitees. Included in the late-season slide was a five-game losing streak, the program's longest since 2004.

UCI split its 16 one-run games, as well as its 14 two-run contests, but was 4-8 in conference games decided by a single run and 1-3 in Big West contests with a two-run margin.

Spencer, a sophomore first baseman who led all Big West hitters with a .373 average, was a beacon of consistency on his way to earning second-team all-conference recognition. He drove in 35 runs and scored 42, which ranked tied for second and tied for first, respectively, among Anteaters. His 19 doubles tied for the conference lead.

Sparks caught fire early in conference play and hit and eye-popping .422 against Big West competition. He finished with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs, both of which ranked atop the conference in regular-season play. Further, Sparks was an above-average defender and his seven steals were second best on the team.

Sparks shared Field Player of the Year honors in the conference, was named third-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, and will spend the summer playing for the USA national collegiate team.

Morales, a second-team All-American and first-team all-conference performer, finished 10-0 with a 1.89 earned-run average. He made 13 starts, most of which came on the final games of the weekend series, and battled through some shoulder pain toward the end of a campaign that included 85 strikeouts in 95 1/3 innings. Morales, a right-hander listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds, could be selected in the Major League Draft. But his lack of prototypical stature might push him down into the lower rounds, where juniors often elect to return to school for their senior season.

Rabago, a sophomore shortstop and one of one of five Anteaters to start all 55 games, was, at times, dazzling defensively, despite being a converted catcher. He hit .269 with one homer, 27 RBIs, and scored 35 runs, primarily from the leadoff spot.

Taylor, a junior center fielder in his first season after transferring from a community college in Utah, hit .309 with three homers, 34 RBIs, 42 runs and a team-best 10 steals. Gillespie, who believes Taylor will be drafted, is crossing his fingers that he won't sign professionally and be back next season.

Among the departed are senior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer, a two-time first-team all-conference honoree who was a national gold glove winner in 2011 when he led the 'Eaters to victory and earned MVP laurels at the Los Angeles Regional.

Andrew Thurman, the staff ace who completed his junior season 6-4 with a 3.23 ERA, is projected to go in the first three rounds of the Major League Draft. If so, he is expected to sign.

Evan Brock, who would be a fifth-year senior, Jimmy Litchfield, who along with seldom-used Phil Ferragamo and less-than-effective Kyle Hooper all pitched in the 2011 postseason, should return on the mound in 2014. Brock was 2-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 19 games, including six starts, as a junior.

Merten, whose seven decisions (four wins to go with two saves) were topped only by the weekend starters, finished with a 5.14 ERA, while Litchfield was 1-0 with a 1.99 ERA in 27 relief appearances.

Gillespie, 72, who is four wins shy of 1,000 as a Division I head coach, will be in the final year of his contract extension in 2014. He is 233-119 in six seasons at UCI (a .662 winning percentage), but the 47 combined losses the last two seasons are the most in consecutive years by the 'Eaters since 2005-06.

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