Small Ball Master

IRVINE, Calif.—The garage door didn’t stand a chance.

Opposing baseball teams often don’t fare much better.

Ever since he began the childhood routine of throwing a tennis ball against the family’s garage door, racing to retrieve the ball at various angles and quickly getting off the return throw that would start the cycle all over again, Ben Orloff has been devoted to perfecting the little things in baseball.

The persistence, passion and defensive skills honed while throwing for so long and so often (the garage door eventually had to be replaced) are just part of the package that makes Orloff an ultimate skills player and leader of a UC Irvine lineup expected to thrive on defense and a small-ball offense. The senior shortstop’s lack of size and power are quickly overlooked, as he does his damage with well-placed hit-and-runs and enough sacrifice bunts to routinely rank among national leaders.

“I think it’s impossible to overstate how valuable he is,” Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “He’s a spectacular competitor and a tremendous person and leader. He’s a skills grandmaster, but really he’s more than that . . . The main thing that separates him is his baseball I.Q., his extreme knowledge of the game. He’s a major league manager. The guy’s handle on the team and his leadership is off the charts.”

Orloff helped organize and run voluntary offseason workouts. He likes to pick the minds of coaches, who without fail describe him as “a sponge.” Even away from the field, baseball rarely seems to leave Orloff’s mind, according to roommate and fellow Anteater infielder Brian Hernandez.

“Ever since I was 4, that’s all I wanted to do: play baseball,” Orloff said. “I’ve never seen myself being anything else. Even as a kid, I’ve always watched it and tried to learn as much as I could. And I’d practice whenever I could. I’d be out there before school, throwing the ball against the garage, then again when I got home.”

Mr. Irvine

He’s also made a habit of winning. Orloff helped his high school team claim its first section championship, then reached the postseason each of his first three years at Irvine. That includes the Anteaters’ first trip to the College World Series when he was a sophomore. Orloff became the unselfish epitome of a program that last year ranked 185th in home runs per game but first in sacrifices.

“I knew who he was before I got here,” said Hernandez, who transferred in this season from JC of the Canyons (Calif.). “I joked about Ben being Mr. Irvine. He’s the face of the program, everybody knows him.”

That wasn’t always the case.

Gillespie, who was the head coach at Southern California when Orloff was in high school at relatively nearby Simi Valley High, admits he was like many others and did not recruit Orloff. He’s glad he got a second chance to have him on his team.

Gillespie began hearing praise for Orloff when the Anteaters were in the 2007 College World Series. Gillespie was managing the Yankees’ short-season Staten Island affiliate and had two former Irvine players on his team who spoke highly of the pesky little infielder. Gillespie quickly adopted those views of Orloff when he became Irvine’s coach last season.

“It didn’t take long to appreciate who he is,” Gillespie said. “He’s spectacular. Over the years, as coaches, we all have players who stand out in our mind and we tend to have a bit of a short-term memory, elevating the most recent players. But this guy’s on my shortest of short lists of all the players I’ve coached. He’s special. The guys who where here before said the same thing.”

Serendipity

Orloff was the first player signed during former coach Dave Serrano’s tenure, and Serrano, now at rival Cal State Fullerton, couldn’t be prouder.

“I’m proud to say he was the foundation of what we were building there,” Serrano said. “Even though he’s competition now, there’s not a soul on our staff who doesn’t pull for him—just not when it’s against us. I can’t say enough about the type of player and person Benny is. It’s hard not to pull for someone like that.”

Serrano saw many of the same attributes in Orloff’s younger brother, Matt, and recruited him to play for Cal State Fullerton. Matt is a freshman infielder for the Titans.

Discovering Ben was more of an accident. Serrano had gone to a Southern California showcase specifically to see another shortstop, but wound up more impressed with Orloff.

Serrano described Orloff, who is listed as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, as “this tiny little guy” and someone who “could hit the ball twice and not get it out of the infield” when he arrived at Irvine. Serrano said he intended to redshirt Orloff that first season, but Orloff’s work ethic and an injury to another player thrust Orloff into a starting job he never relinquished.

Orloff has played every inning of the Anteaters’ past 155 games. As a freshman, he led the nation with a school-record 26 sacrifices. He led the nation in sacrifices again as a sophomore. He earned first-team All-Big West honors last season when he hit .344 with a team-high 17 doubles and struck out just 19 times in 227 at-bats. His 44 career stolen bases are tied for third in program history.

Gillespie cites Orloff’s two successful hit-and-run plays in one inning of last year’s Baton Rouge Super Regional as the prime example of Orloff’s value, and said he could hit in any of the top three slots in this year’s lineup.

“When I had him, I called him the David Eckstein of college baseball,” Serrano said. “He doesn’t have all the physical attributes, but he has the heart of a lion and plays much bigger than his size.”

Orloff likes to think small, though. He downplays his defensive prowess as the result of “focus—never taking a pitch off—and always being prepared.”

That mentality served as a model for brother Matt, who recalls Ben returning from workouts to share newly learned pointers the brothers would then practice together for hours.

“That’s what he always prided himself on because he’s not the biggest player and doesn’t hit home runs,” Matt said. “He’s always tried to perfect the little things. Size doesn’t matter for that.”

Orloff was drafted by Colorado in the 19th round last year. Expect him to go higher this time around.

“I’d be astounded if he’s not a top-10-round pick,” Gillespie said. “He will get drafted and he will play professionally.

“If he doesn’t make it as a player, he’s a professional coach, a manager. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a major league manager someday. But I would not sell him short as a player.”

Orloff insists he isn’t looking that far ahead.

“I just want to do anything in my power to win a Big West Conference championship and maybe even a national championship,” he said. “That’s all that’s on my mind.”

Heather Gripp is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

College | #2009 #Season Preview

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