UC Irvine shines on college baseball's biggest stages

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Mike Gillespie should have known the day he looked out his new office last October and watched a baseball team that was about to be under his guidance conduct fall practice on its own.

UC Irvine loves the spotlight -- a good thing, considering it's about to get as hot as possible for the Anteaters this weekend.

Gillespie's first team -- having blanked Oral Roberts 8-0 Sunday night to finish off a clean sweep of the NCAA regional in Lincoln, Neb. -- is headed to Baton Rouge, La., for a best-of-three super regional series against national No. 7 seed LSU.

Uh, yeah, the same team that holds a nation-long and SEC-record 23-game winning streak.

What's more, Gillespie's team is about to become the final visitor to Alex Box Stadium, as the Tigers will open a new facility next year.

"I think it's probably about as challenging as it could possibly be," Gillespie said. "They are, after all, literally the hottest team in the country. They have been for the past month now. It's a very partisan crowd, but I think our guys will love it.

"They won last year at Texas, at Wichita and did well at Omaha [at the College World Series], so they've had a little taste of it. … Their attitude will be 'Let's do it again.'"

Gillespie knows a thing or two about reading players. During his 20 years at USC, the Trojans made five College World Series appearances and won the 1998 championship.

Gillespie left USC following the 2006 season and last year became a scout and minor league manager in the New York Yankees' system. After his Staten Island club was eliminated from the playoffs, Gillespie returned to his Southern California home and a few days later interviewed for the Irvine job, which opened when Dave Serrano left to take over Cal State Fullerton's program after George Horton left to head up Oregon's return to the sport.

"I think it's probably about as challenging as it could possibly be. [LSU is], after all, literally the hottest team in the country. They have been for the past month now. It's a very partisan crowd, but I think our guys will love it.

-- Mike Gillespie

It wasn't long after he'd interviewed that Gillespie was told he'd gotten the job, but Irvine had to abide by California hiring laws and wait before making any official announcement.

Thus, the Anteaters were on their own to start fall ball.

"A two-plus-hour, well-planned practice, and it went on for several days. It was incredible," Gillespie said. "It really reflected a great work ethic, a great energy, and what I found since that time, I realized this was a group of guys that have a real unique personality. And a group that has more fun together, literally, than any group I've ever been around."

As has been the case all season, strong pitching carried Irvine during its three games in Lincoln. While right-handed junior Scott Gorgen, a preseason All-American and the Big West Conference Tri-Pitcher of the Year, had an uncharacteristically rough outing in a 9-7 opening-game win, right-handed sophomore Eric Pettis worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning to notch his 16th save.

On Saturday, left-handed sophomore Daniel Bibona -- locked in a pitching duel with NCAA active career wins leader Johnny Dorn, and performing in front of the largest crowd (8,646 people) during the first days of any regional -- held Nebraska hitless after giving up a two-run homer with two outs in the third inning. Irvine then got a game-tying solo home run from 5-foot-8, 160-pound Ollie Linton with one out in the fifth, which broke a 2-2 tie and wound up as the game's final run.

The Anteaters finished things off Sunday behind a 7 2/3-inning effort by right-handed sophomore Bryce Stowell, who gave up just five hits and struck out a career-high 13.

Irvine takes a 41-16 record to LSU, which improved to 46-16-1 by sweeping its regional.

"I think anybody would love it," Gillespie said. "You always want to be where you can win, but the places we've been, last year and this year, we're talking about some of the best places in the nation year in and year out.

"Going to Texas, Wichita State and Omaha … and this place [Lincoln's Haymarket Park]. This was the best ballpark in the country with a full house."

Now it's on to LSU's Alex Box, where in 1990 and 1994 Gillespie's USC clubs fell in regional championship games that determined College World Series berths.

Top-seeded Nebraska was hoping to be the next team to have a shot at ending the Tigers' winning streak, but on Sunday, the Huskers looked like they were still struggling to put Saturday night's loss to Irvine behind them, as they were held hitless through six innings by Oral Roberts left-handed senior Kelly Minissale and went down 8-0.

The outcome came exactly five years after the Huskers suffered their only other shutout loss in Haymarket Park -- a 7-0 decision to Southwest Missouri State in the 2003 NCAA regional championship game.

Nebraska, which failed to advance past a home regional for the third time in four tries, also joined Long Beach State as the only two of the 16 No. 1 seeds not to reach the regional championship round.

How did that happen?

In addition to their pitchers giving up at least 10 hits in all three regional games, the Huskers were the only squad in the event's first five contests not to produce that many in a contest. And they did it twice while batting just .239.

"You're going to ask 63 [other] coaches that same question, and there's going to be one that has the right answer," coach Mike Anderson said of finding an elusive magic formula for late-season success. "Those are the odds of that whole thing. I wish we had the magic formula, and some day maybe we will."

Nebraska's final two games represented its two lowest run totals at home this season and marked the first time in 36 contests at Haymarket Park that it hadn't scored at least three runs.

"This game can be extremely humbling and, obviously, that is the case today. But this day won't represent to me what this group of kids represents," said Anderson, whose team, after being picked by Big 12 conference coaches to finish sixth in the league, gritted its way to a 40-14-1 record. "It's a real tough group of kids to let go. But I'd say this -- they're probably a group of kids that are more ready for the world than a lot of others that have come through here. … They're going to be just fine as they move on."

Gillespie holds his bunch in the same light. The big difference is the Eaters are moving on to their next game.

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.