Baseball Preview: UC Irvine

Cal State Fullerton has won two straight series for the first time this season, although it certainly wasn't easy doing so after playing extra innings in the first two games (including the longest game ever at Goodwin Field – 16 innings) against defending Big West champs UC Riverside.

Next up on the schedule for Fullerton is a much anticipated series at UC Irvine, whom current Fullerton head coach Dave Serrano led to a 3rd place finish in the College World Series last season. The Anteaters have another outstanding ballclub this season and have gotten off to a fast start at 19-3, including a 2-1 series win at Cal Poly last weekend to open up their Big West schedule. Irvine is 10-0 at Anteater Ballpark this season.

LINEUP

Irvine lost five position players from last year's lineup and it was generally thought that Irvine would struggle to make up for the offensive output of those players. But, with most of the replacements for those players having experience in Irvine's program, the Anteaters haven't really skipped a beat offensively. Irvine is hitting .312 as a team and has scored 6+ runs in 13 of 22 games, having been held to 3 runs or less only three times (which occurred in each of their losses).

Irvine's philosophy at the plate is similar to what they did last year – get on base however they can and get the runners moving via bunts, hit and run plays and stealing bases. Irvine leads the country in SAC bunts per game and ranks second nationally in SB's per game. The Anteaters will work counts, walking more this year and averaging a little under four times per game, and take HBP's, averaging almost two per game. Despite having only 14 HR's, Irvine has several players who have the ability to drive the ball for extra base hits, averaging around three per game. Because Irvine has been focusing a little less on spraying the ball around and a little more on hitting for power this season, the team's strikeouts have increased from just over five per game to almost seven per game.

Irvine has struggled some defensively for a team of their caliber, making 31 E's with many of those at 2B and at the corner OF spots, three positions where the Anteaters have been shuffling quite a few players in and out of the lineup. Irvine is strong up the middle at C, SS and CF.

Infield

C Aaron Lowenstein (RH - .179-0-6-2) is one of the better defensive players at his position in college baseball, especially at throwing out baserunners (10-21 this year, 19-42 last season). Lowenstein is above average at blocking pitches. He has slumped this season after hitting .296 last year and will usually bat 9th. Although he only has one SAC bunt this year, Lowenstein is a good bunter with 27 SAC bunts the previous two seasons. If Irvine does use another catcher this weekend, Lowenstein's backup is Francis Larson, who is a much better hitter and is solid defensively.

1B Jeff Cusick (RH - .449-0-13-3) is the cleanup hitter and has been one of the best hitters in the Big West, leading the conference in batting average. Cusick is patient at the plate and has an outstanding .541 OBP and is second on the team with 9 extra base hits. He went 6-11 last weekend to continue his hot streak at the plate to start the season. Cusick hit .319 in 91 AB's last season.

2B Ryan Fisher (LH - .342-2-25-6) is in the lineup for his bat, leads the team in RBI's and usually hits 5th against RHP. Fisher was seeing some time in the OF earlier this season with Tyler Hoechlin (LH - .241 in 29 AB's) playing 2B but Fisher has been playing 2B regularly lately. Both have struggled defensively.

SS Ben Orloff (RH - .290-0-10-11) is the glue that holds things together. Orloff hits second and helps to get things going by moving runners along and running when he gets on base. Orloff is an outstanding bunter and led the nation the previous two seasons in SAC bunts. Orloff is solid defensively and was the 2nd team all Big West SS last season and hit .324 with 20 SB's.

3B Casey Stevenson (LH – 3-13 last weekend) is a JC transfer with big time tools who recently became eligible with the NCAA Clearing House, playing for the first time last weekend at Cal Poly, where he was instantly inserted into the 3rd spot in the lineup. Prior to Stevenson becoming eligible, Eric Deragisch (RH - .262-0-5-3) had started almost every game at 3B. Deragisch leads the team with 6 SAC bunts.

Outfield and DH

The leader in the OF for Irvine is CF Ollie Linton (LH - .356-2-17-22), who is the leadoff hitter and the fastest player on the team. Linton leads the team in runs scored and the country in SB's so the Fullerton pitchers will obviously need to keep him off base or watch him when he is on base. He handles the bat very well and will often bunt for hits or move runners over with SAC bunts. Linton hit .342 last season and was 2nd team all Big West.

Sean Madigan (LH - .286-1-8-6) will usually play RF against RHP and hit in the lower part of the lineup. Madigan has had trouble making contact as one of the team leaders with 17 K's. He hit .333 last year as a FR, receiving several national honors.

The LF and DH positions have been a platoon among several players. With Fisher playing 2B most of the time now, that has opened up a spot for other players, primarily Brock Bardeen (LH - .333-2-10-1), who has been batting 7th and has started to get more AB's the past few weeks against RHP. He went 4-7 with a HR and 4 RBI's in his two starts at Cal Poly and has one of the highest SLG %'s on the team at .590, although he is prone to striking out (12 K's in 39 AB's). The other player in the LF/DH mix is Francis Larson (RH - .329-5-24-3), who bats in the middle of the lineup and leads Irvine in HR's and extra base hits and is 2nd in RBI's. He must be pitched to carefully. The OF's on the bench who see more playing time against LHP are Tony Asaro (RH - .360 in 25 AB's) and Dillon Bell (RH - .273 in 22 AB's).

PITCHING

Irvine's pitching staff has been outstanding this season and leads the country with a 2.12 ERA. Irvine has allowed 3 runs or less in 14 of 21 games and the pitching for the Anteaters has been solid across the board with both the starters and relievers.

Starters

Friday – Scott Gorgen (RHP – 5-1, 1.39 ERA, 6 starts, 45 IP, 20 H's, 13 BB's, 55 K's) was 1st team all Big West and an All-American last year in leading Irvine to the College World Series. Gorgen is one of the best pitchers in the country and is one of the leading candidates for national pitcher of the year honors. He is allowing batters to only hit .127 off of him and has allowed only one hit in three of six starts. Gorgen had allowed only 4 R's total in five starts prior to struggling last week with a good hitting Cal Poly team, allowing 2 HR's and 4 R's early in the game before settling down and holding the Mustangs scoreless for the last four innings, allowing Irvine to come back and win the game. Fullerton has not had any success against Gorgen, scoring no runs in 14 2/3 IP in two starts.

Saturday – Bryce Stowell (RHP – 4-1, 2.36 ERA, 6 starts, 34 IP, 31 H's, 9 BB's, 32 K's) is the hardest thrower of the SP's, one of the reasons that he is projected to go in the first few rounds of the draft in June. Stowell has been solid but has only gotten past the 6th inning once. He has struggled a little bit the past two starts, allowing 6 R's (all unearned) in 5 1/3 IP against Northern Colorado and 4 R's (3 ER) and 2 HR's in 6 IP at Cal Poly in his first loss of the season. Stowell redshirted last season after transferring from Pepperdine.

Sunday – Daniel Bibona (LHP – 4-1, 2.70 ERA, 8 apps, 5 starts, 33 IP, 25 H's, 9 BB's, 38 K's) started the season as the midweek SP and had success in that role with a win against San Diego (6 IP, 4 H's, 0 R's, 12 K's) and two wins against USC (12 IP, 3 R's, 7 H's). He has not been as sharp after moving into the weekend rotation against two good hitting teams (ASU, Cal Poly), allowing 14 H's, 6 BB's and 7 R's in 12 IP. Bibona has outstanding offspeed pitches, allowing batters to only hit .212, and is especially difficult on LH hitters. Bibona had a 6.84 ERA in 26 IP as a FR last season.

Relievers

Eric Pettis (RHP – 1-0, 1.23 ERA, 7 SV's, 12 apps, 15 IP, 10 H's, 4 BB's, 12 K's) ended up being the Sunday SP later in the season last year (4-0, 4.53 ERA, 25 apps, 7 starts, 60 IP) but has moved into the closer's role and has been tough, allowing batters to only hit .189.

Christian Bergman (4-0, 0.89 ERA, 7 apps, 5 starts, 30 IP, 31 H's, 7 BB's, 18 K's) is now one of the setup men after being the Sunday SP and pitched well in that role, although he only went past the 6th inning once in five starts. Matt Dufour (RHP – 0-0, 1.93 ERA, 12 apps, 14 IP, 14 H's, 4 BB's, 14 K's), Kyle Necke (RHP – 1-0, 5.06 ERA, 9 apps, 5 IP, 11 H's, 3 BB's, 3 K's) and Tom Calahan (LHP – 0-0, 4.50 ERA, 10 apps, 6 IP, 8 H's, 3 BB's, 7 K's) have been getting regular work out of the bullpen in the middle innings to get the ball to Pettis. Calahan is a LHP specialist who is usually brought in to only face a couple of LH hitters.

OUTLOOK

Both Fullerton and Irvine come into this series playing well. The teams offensively are pretty much mirror images of each other both statistically and in how they approach things, which isn't a surprise considering the Fullerton coaching staff coached most of these same players at Irvine last year. The big difference between these teams has been what has been taking place on the mound. Fullerton has been pitching better lately, especially the bullpen, but can't match what Irvine has been accomplishing, with an ERA over two runs higher. Unless Fullerton's starting pitching steps up with performances they have not delivered often, it is hard to see Fullerton winning this series with the likely result that Irvine wins two out of three games this weekend.