IRVINE, Calif.–UC Irvine is very excited about its brand-new facility, Newkirk Pavilion, and with good reason. The Anteaters held a wonderful dedication ceremony before Saturday's game, highlighted by speeches from the athletic director, chancellor and head coach Dave Serrano, with the common theme being appreciation for UCI benefactors Jim and Martha Newkirk. The facility features a sparkling clubhouse and locker room on the first floor and coaches offices and an open-air all-purpose meeting room on the second floor. Irvine's players are understandably excited about their new home, but not just because of its functional purpose.
"This is more than just a clubhouse, a place to get changed," said senior second baseman Cody Cipriano. "It's a resource."
Indeed, the pavilion sends a strong message to recruits that UCI is serious about baseball.
Speaking of baseball, there was a game Saturday night as well, and it was a good one. Irvine junior righthander Wes Etheridge has been one of the best newcomers, and indeed one of the best pitchers, in the Big West this year, and it's obvious why. He doesn't have overpowering stuff to match his overpowering numbers (9-2, 2.80 entering Saturday's game), but his mid-80s sinker has a ton of movement, and he pitched very well Saturday with the exception of one mistake in the second inning, which Kevin James deposited over the right-field fence for a three-run homer. That came on a 3-and-2 changeup that Etheridge left up in the zone, one of just 10 or 11 changeups he threw all night, according to Serrano. Other than that, he just pounds hitters with that sinking fastball.
Irvine strikes me as the most balanced team in the Big West this year–they lead the conference with a .310 team batting average and 2.3 stolen bases per game (ninth-best in the nation), and they're also third in the league with a 3.90 ERA. There's good pop in the middle of the lineup with Cipriano (a team-leading nine homers) and outfielders Bryan Petersen (five homers) and Matt Morris (six). The rotation has an outstanding one-two punch in righthanders Scott Gorgen and Etheridge, and the bullpen has an outstanding one-two punch in NCAA career saves leader Blair Erickson and righty Dylan Axelrod. UCI has also showed a knack for timely hitting this season, but that was lacking Saturday. The Anteaters got the leadoff man aboard in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings but failed to push the tying run across. UC Davis righthander Eddie Gamboa, who had Tommy John surgery a year ago, entered the game with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh and got a big strikeout to end the threat. Then he stranded a runner on third base to end the eighth.
"Eddie's a tremendous competitor, and he loves to pitch in those type of situations," UC Davis coach Rex Peters said. "With the arm surgery last year and coming back from that, it's just a matter of getting some confidence back. We've taken him along slowly, and he's at a point now where he can give us some quality innings out of the pen and even start a game if we needed him to. We need a guy like him in the bullpen, we haven't really had one recently until he's gotten healthy, but he gives us a guy to go to in those types of situations."
The Anteaters, who left 11 runners on base in the game, had the same problems with clutch hitting against Davis starter Brad McAtee, an imposing 6-foot-5, sophomore righthander who has now beaten Long Beach State and UC Irvine in back-to-back weeks. Peters said McAtee's stuff's always been good–he has a four-pitch mix with a fastball, a changeup with split-finger action, a slider and a curve–but he's learning how to command it. His confidence will only grow after beating a regional-caliber team like UC Irvine.