Nice day for California sophomore first baseman David Cooper yesterday, belting two home runs in Cal’s 6-1 win against UC Santa Barbara. Cooper, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton, is off to a very hot start, batting .444 with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .759 slugging percentage. It might help that he’s plenty familiar with the Big West, and the Golden Bears have now played three games against UC Irvine (winning two), two against Long Beach State (losing both) and two against the Gauchos (winning both). Going 4-3 against that group is pretty good, because the Big West is clearly an improved conference.
Leading the way are Long Beach State and UC Riverside, who vaulted into the top 25 this week after getting off to 8-4 and 9-4 starts, respectively. But don’t forget about the Anteaters, who are off to the best start in school history at 10-2-1. UC Irvine hasn’t lost a game since dropping that season-opening series up in Berkeley three weeks ago, having taken a series from Loyola Marymount (despite playing to a 15-15 tie in the series finale) and getting big sweeps at Houston and against Utah at home. The Anteaters have shown toughness during their current hot streak that has impressed coach Dave Serrano.
“This team’s exciting. It has a no-panic, no-quit attitude,” Serrano said. “We get behind, and the thing I’m proud of as a coach is our guys don’t panic. We’ll chip away and try to win frames.”
Serrano credits his bullpen with keeping the Anteaters in every game even when the starters falter. Senior righthander Blair Erickson has been dominant, racking up six saves over seven appearances. He has yet to allow a run through 6 1/3 innings; he’s given up just two hits and four walks while striking out 13. Erickson now has 46 career saves, tied for the most in Big West history, and he’s just three short of the NCAA Division I career saves record held by Southern California’s Jack Krawcyzk.
Erickson has gotten help in the bullpen from righthanders Wes Etheridge and Dylan Axelrod. Etheridge started in the bullpen, where his rubber arm allowed him to bail UCI out of a number of tough spots. But when Axelrod struggled in the rotation, Etheridge moved into the Saturday starter spot against Utah this weekend, and he performed well in the new role, yielding just two runs over five innings. Serrano compares Etheridge, a junior transfer from Cypress (Calif.) CC, to former Cal State Fullerton righthander Kirk Saarloos because of his ability to sink the ball with his fastball and changeup. Axelrod, meanwhile, has thrived since moving to the bullpen. He made three scoreless relief appearances last week, striking out five while walking just one and allowing one hit over 3 1/3 innings.
There’s plenty to like about the rest of Irvine’s pitching staff, even though freshman righthander Christian Bergman has been sidelined with tendinitis. It starts with sophomore righthander Scott Gorgen, a legitimate ace on Friday nights. Gorgen is undersized at 5-foot-10, but he has a quick arm and he competes well. His outstanding changeup makes his fastball look a lot quicker than the 87-88 mph it actually is.
UCI is relying plenty upon its 14th-ranked recruiting class, and so far the freshmen are coming through. Righthander Reid Suitor has already won a couple of games and could emerge as Irvine’s Sunday starter. Lefty Daniel Bibona was solid in relief of Suitor this past Sunday, and he’ll get the start today as the Anteaters take on No. 17 Pepperdine. He’ll be part of an interesting pitching matchup against Waves righthander Adam Olbrychowski.
But for all the quality arms, Irvine’s offense might be the biggest reason for its early success. The Anteaters rank first in the Big West in batting (.337), on-base percentage (.415) and slugging (.496). Senior outfielder Matt Morris leads the way with a .522 average; he’s currently riding a 12-game hitting streak and shows no signs of slowing down. Still, the stats don’t reveal the most impressive characteristic of the Irvine offense. It’s the way they play.
“You can never relax–there are always guys stealing, safety squeezing, delay hit-and-running, and on top of that hitting balls off the fence,” Serrano said. “We have a team that has a chance to do something. I think last year as excited as we were about what we achieved as a team, we weren’t ready to win a regional game yet. But we’re ready to go beyond that now. I know we’re under the radar, but this is a team that’s going to have to be reckoned with somewhere down the line.”