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2022 College Top 25 Preview: No. 18 UC Irvine

Last season: 43-18 (32-8 in Big West); reached regionals
Final ranking: No. 18
Coach (record at school): Ben Orloff (88-42, three years)

The good news: UCI last season won the Big West title for just the second time in program history and for the first time since 2009. That team largely returns intact for 2022. Outfielder Nathan Church, the team’s leading hitter in 2021, is back to anchor the lineup. He’s one of several regulars returning for the Anteaters. They figure to be improved defensively, thanks in part to a strong middle of catcher Thomas McCaffrey, shortstop Taishi Nakawake (2021 co-Big West Defensive Player of the Year) and center fielder Luke Spillane. That defense will only further bolster UCI’s pitching staff that last year ranked No. 24 in the nation in ERA (3.80) and returns starters Michael Frias and Nick Pinto as well as key relievers Jacob King and Gordon Ingebritson. As good as Frias and Pinto were in 2021, the bullpen may be the Anteaters’ biggest strength as righthander Troy Taylor, a junior college transfer and unsigned 20th-round pick of the Mariners in 2021, is set to join King and Ingebritson in the mix at the end of games.

The bad news: While much of the Anteaters’ lineup returns, they must replace co-Big West player of the year Mike Peabody and catcher Dillon Tatum. Peabody did a bit of everything offensively and he and Tatum combined to hit 24 of UCI’s 45 home runs in 2021. The Anteaters are likely to this spring simply have less pop in their lineup but finding new and improved sources of power will still be necessary. Newcomers Myles Smith, a freshman, and Ben Fitzgerald, a graduate transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette, will be counted on to bolster the offense and provide extra-base hits. On the mound, UCI does have impressive top-end talents, but its depth is not as well established after losing starters Trenton Denholm and Peter Van Loon in the draft. Freshmen righthanders Danny Suarez and Finnegan Wall give the Anteaters two solid options to fill out the rotation, but UCI will need some time to firm up the staff.

Player to know: Nathan Church, OF

Church in 2021 led UCI in batting as he hit .369/.424/.583 with 24 doubles, six home runs and seven stolen bases. His 100 hits set a program record and ranked third nationally, as only All-Americans Connor Norby (East Carolina) and Hunter Wells (Louisiana Tech) collected more than him. The fourth-year sophomore (he took a medical redshirt in 2019) will be the focal point of the UCI offense in 2022 and with Peabody and Tatum gone, his production will be even more vital.

Path to Omaha: With Church anchoring the lineup and a strong, experienced group leading the pitching staff, there’s plenty of reason to be bullish on UCI in 2022. To reach its ceiling and return to the College World Series for the first time since 2014, it will need to develop depth around its standouts. Under Orloff, the Anteaters have already made impressive strides. A deep postseason run is coming sooner than later, and with so much experience from last year’s championship team returning, 2022 can be that year.

Lebarron Johnson (Brian Westerholt Four Seam Images)

Cape Cod League Notes Week Seven

10 pitchers who stood out for their performance over the course of the Cape Cod League season.

2022 Lineup

CThomas McCaffreySo..356.449.446101122
1BJustin TorresR-Jr..278.395.469162533
2BWoody HadeenSo..294.446.2945107
3BConnor McGuireR-So..297.384.423182244
SSTaishi NakawakeR-Sr..261.352.312199032
LFMyles SmithFr.
HS—Inglewood, Calif.
CFLuke SpillaneR-So..306.385.428222545
RFNathan ChurchR-So..369.424.583271661
DHBen FitzgeraldR-Sr.
RHPMichael FriasR-Jr.923.3686910
LHPNick PintoR-So.743.4387790
RHPDanny SuarezFr.
HS—Trabuco Canyon, Calif.
RPGordon IngebritsonR-Sr.613.4040361
RPJacob KingR-So.311.9841458

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