Andrew Morales and UC Irvine were on their way to an NCAA playoff bid that seemed a foregone conclusion.
Morales was 40-1 as a college pitcher, including 9-0 this season, when Irvine began a series against Cal State Fullerton two weeks ago.
But a late-season slide — and consecutive losses suffered by their senior ace — nearly extinguished Irvine’s chance for a postseason opportunity.
Irvine finished third in the Big West Conference and barely made the 64-team playoff field.
On Friday, the Anteaters (35-22) will be counting on Morales to ignite a playoff run when Irvine plays Nevada Las Vegas (35-23) in the first round of a double-elimination regional at Corvallis, Ore. Top-seeded Oregon State (42-12) plays North Dakota State (25-24) in the other first-round game.
The Anteaters are one of four Southland teams in the playoffs.
Long Beach State (32-24) plays North Carolina (34-25) in a regional at Gainesville, Fla. Long Beach won nine of its final 10 games and finished second in the Big West to earn its first postseason appearance under fourth-year Coach Troy Buckley. Florida (40-21) and College of Charleston (41-17) also are in the regional.
Cal State Fullerton (32-22) plays Nebraska (40-19) at Stillwater, Okla. Fullerton rebounded from Coach Rick Vanderhook’s suspension to win its final seven games and earn a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance. Oklahoma State (45-16) and Binghamton (25-25) also are in the regional.
Pepperdine (39-16), winner of the West Coast Conference tournament, plays Arizona State (33-22) at San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly (45-10) and Sacramento State (39-22) also are in the regional.
Winners of the 16 regionals advance to Super Regionals from June 6 to 9. Eight teams will advance to the College World Series taking place June 14 to 25 in Omaha.
Morales, who pitched two seasons at Rio Hondo College before transferring to Irvine, has pined for an NCAA postseason opportunity since last season, when the Anteaters won 33 games but failed to earn a bid.
“Once you get that taste of winning, that real feel of it, it’s something you don’t want to let go of,” Morales said. “You want to get more of it.”
Morales’ evolution into a winner began at West Covina South Hills High, though it was not immediately apparent. He made the South Hills varsity as a junior but failed to get out of the first inning in one of his early starts.
“He got his head beat in and he didn’t like it,” said Kevin Smith, who coached Morales at South Hills. “From that point on he started to work harder and figure it out. He started to ask a lot of questions and he got progressively better.”
Morales helped South Hills win the Southern Section Division III title in 2009 and enrolled at Rio Hondo after graduating in 2010.
“He was a strike-thrower,” Rio Hondo Coach Mike Salazar said.
Morales went 21-1 at Rio Hondo, his only loss coming in the first game of the state tournament. He said he took inspiration from his younger sister, Emily, who began battling through a form of leukemia before his sophomore season and is now cancer free.
“I believed I was playing for something bigger than myself — I wanted to succeed in her name,” he said. “Some of the biggest life lessons I learned from her.”
Despite his success on the field and a solid academic record, Morales was not besieged by scholarship offers.
“I was kind of waiting for something to pop up,” he said.
Morales was considering attending UC Davis or Cal State Northridge when Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie called and offered him an opportunity to walk on, with the possibility of receiving a scholarship.
“I think the truth is, he was always good and everybody missed on him, including us,” Gillespie said.
Morales began the 2013 season in the bullpen but got a Sunday start because of an injury suffered by another pitcher. That was all the opportunity he needed.
He finished 10-0 with a 1.89 earned-run average.
“I think I made a statement,” he said. “I wanted to prove that it wasn’t a fluke at the junior college level.”
Despite his success, the 6-foot Morales was not selected in Major League Baseball’s 2013 amateur draft. When every team passed, Morales committed to a weight-training program that produced strength and velocity gains.
“I wanted to give all the scouts kind of a little wake-up call, saying, ‘Hey, may have missed me this year but I’m not going to give you a chance to do that’” again. he said.
Morales was 19-0 as a Division I pitcher when Fullerton arrived at Anteater Ballpark on May 16.
He gave up five runs and six hits in the fourth inning and was pulled after five innings. Irvine lost the game, which started Fullerton and Vanderhook on their run to the playoffs.
Pro scouts had turned out en masse to see Morales and other prospects. His first loss in two seasons did nothing to sour evaluators on a player with four pitches, including a fastball clocked in the low 90s.
“He didn’t back down, nor did he show up the competition or his teammates,” said one scout, who requested anonymity because he is was not authorized to speak publicly about prospects. “It looked like he took it like a man and kept grinding. Those are all qualities that translate to professional baseball. “
Said Morales: “It takes a lot for me to be shaken off the tracks, and when I mean a lot you probably have to score 15 runs in an inning or knock me out in the first inning rather than the fifth.”
Morales pitched well in his next start against Long Beach State, but the Anteaters lost, 3-2.
Now he will get the postseason opportunity he hoped for. His selection in the draft will follow.
“I believe if I do get the chance, I can do well,” he said. “Hopefully, come June, we’ll find out.”