UC Irvine Hopes Historic Season Leads To Promised Land Of CWS


Image credit: Anthony Martinez (Photo courtesy of UC Irvine)

At the midpoint of the college baseball season, there was just one program in the country that ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring (9.3 runs per game), ERA (3.87) and fielding percentage (.981).

That program wasn’t Arkansas or Texas A&M or Wake Forest, the three teams this year to rank No. 1 in the Top 25. It wasn’t Clemson, Florida State or Oregon State, powerhouses that have consistently this spring ranked in the top 10. Instead, it was UC Irvine, producing as one of the most complete and consistent programs in the country.

UCI has a rich tradition of its own, having reached the College World Series twice in the last 20 years (2007 and 2014) and won the Big West Conference twice in that same span (2009 and 2021). But the Anteaters have never started a season this well. They were 24-4 at the midpoint, the best mark in program history, and had just won a showdown series against UC Santa Barbara, which had been picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches poll.

The Anteaters were feeling good about themselves, but they know the job is far from finished.

“We want to see how good we can be,” coach Ben Orloff said. “I told our players it’s like in your class when you get an A on the midterm. You might want to coast and get a C on the final, but that’s not what we want to be about.”

UCI stumbled a bit in the aftermath of the series win against UCSB. It lost twice to Southern California and lost a series at UC San Diego, the reigning conference champion, to fall to 25-8 on the season.

The Anteaters didn’t need a reminder about how long and arduous the college baseball season is, but they got one anyway. Everything they want to do this season—win the conference, make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a national title in the College World Series—is still ahead of them. But for a program in the often-overlooked Big West, nothing can be taken for granted and everything must be earned.

No one is more familiar with that than UCI. A year ago, Orloff and the Anteaters were feeling good about their NCAA Tournament chances at the end of the season. Going into Selection Monday, they were 38-17, ranked 49th in RPI and riding a six-game winning streak. UCI made the cut in the final tournament projections from Baseball America (as the last team in) and D1 Baseball (as the third-to-last team in). The tournament bubble had tightened over the weekend due to conference tournament upsets, but UCI still looked like an NCAA Tournament team. The Anteaters gathered to watch the selection show as a team.

The selection committee hadn’t seen things quite the same as the prognosticators, however. It left UCI out of the field, listing it among the first four teams to miss the cut—a bitter consolation for the Anteaters, who had seen their season come to a sudden end.

In the room, there was a feeling of disappointment and shock.

“It was dead quiet in that room afterwards,” lefthander Nick Pinto said. “It was one of the worst experiences I’ve had. We were finishing the year strong, hearing buzz we would be in, getting ready to go play somewhere and then having that feeling, you could hear a pin drop in there.”

The Anteaters had to quickly move on from the disappointment, as college baseball’s offseason begins immediately. Seniors begin the next stage of their lives, many players head off for summer ball and coaches hit the recruiting trail. This year’s team doesn’t talk about last season’s ending, but it’s stuck with them and none of them want to repeat the feeling.

The Big West long was college baseball’s premier mid-major conference. Cal State Fullerton has won four national titles. Stars like Shane Bieber, Mark Kotsay, Troy Tulowitzki and Jered Weaver played in the league. Teams from the conference consistently advanced to the CWS deep into the super regional era (the CWS included a team from the Big West 11 times in the first 19 years after the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999). But as college sports have changed, with more power and money being concentrated in just a few major conferences, the Big West’s place in the sport has changed. The conference has not received an at-large bid in three of the last four seasons, no team from the conference has advanced to the CWS since 2017 (also the last time it hosted a regional) and none has won a regional since 2018.

The reasons for the change are myriad, some of the conference’s own doing, some far beyond its control. No matter how it got there, however, the conference does not rate well in the metrics the selection committee uses to build the NCAA Tournament. That makes it all the more important to win the conference title and secure the automatic bid that comes with it.

“I don’t think the league gets the respect it deserves based on how good the teams and players are,” Orloff said. “It puts a lot of pressure on you because the clear path to the postseason is to win the league.”

UCI is a part of the Big West’s baseball tradition. The program’s history is rich both in the dugout and on the field—John Savage, Dave Serrano and Mike Gillespie led the program before Orloff took over at his alma mater in 2019 and big leaguers such as Keston Hiura and Andre Pallante have played there.

Orloff, the 2009 Big West player of the year, has spent most of his adult life at UCI. He believes everything is in place for the Anteaters to continue to build on the program’s tradition.

“The things are here for us to compete to win a national championship,” he said. “I live one mile from campus. There are a lot of things here that make this a really good place. That’s part of why Irvine has won for so long. Our kids live in Newport Beach, so there’s a lot worse places I have to imagine than where we’re at.”

This season’s Anteaters have a chance to add to the program’s legacy. Their lineup is one of the best and most experienced in the nation. They returned every regular from last season’s team, including outfielder Caden Kendle, the 2023 Big West co-player of the year, and first baseman Anthony Martinez, a 2023 Freshman All-American who was invited to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. It also got back shortstop Woody Hadeen, who missed the 2023 season due to injury.

The lineup has lived up to its hype, even as it’s dealt with some injuries this spring. It is averaging 9.0 runs per game, 17th nationally. Kendle has been even better than he was a year ago, hitting .412/.497/.605 with 12 doubles. Hadeen (.398/.530/.453, 11 SB) and Martinez (.358/.470/.533) have also starred this season.

Kendle’s return has been as significant as it was surprising when he announced it last summer. After his standout junior season when he hit .335/.434/.535 with 16 doubles, he was drafted in the 10th round by the Cardinals. Players who are drafted in the top 10 rounds almost invariably sign due to MLB draft rules that require teams to forfeit the pick value of any unsigned player from the bonus pool each team is allotted to sign its draft picks.

Kendle, however, decided to return for his senior season. In a social media post at the time, he wrote he had a change of heart.

“For those that know me best, I am an all-in guy,” he wrote. “It is not right for the Cardinals to have my body and mind but not my heart and soul.”

Kendle said the experience of getting drafted was unlike anything he’s ever before experienced. But as he considered it further, he realized he had unfinished business at UCI. He wanted to finish his degree in social ecology and wanted to complete his college baseball career.

“You only get memories once in a lifetime,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I wanted to get my degree and look where we are right now.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It was a big maturity point in my life and where I am now.”

On Opening Day, UCI started a lineup with six players in at least their fourth season of college baseball, two juniors and Martinez, the reigning Big West freshman field player of the year. Injuries have forced some changes to that group, but UCI is still operating with a veteran lineup.

Orloff, who is well respected as a hitting coach, is enjoying the opportunity to work with such an experienced group of hitters.

 “When you have an older group that’s been around a while with the experiences they’ve seen, they’re able to do more,” Orloff said. “You can put more nuance in the scouting report, pitcher-dependent type of stuff. That’s fun because of the amount of options you have.”

While the Anteaters have a veteran-laden lineup, their pitching staff skews much younger. Pinto, the team’s ace, is a major exception, as he is in his fifth season at UCI and the most experienced pitcher in the country. No active Division I pitcher has made more career starts (55) or thrown more innings (305.1) than Pinto.

Pinto, like Kendle, was already one of UCI’s best players but has taken a step forward in his last year of college baseball. He this season is 6-2, 3.16 with 49 strikeouts and 14 walks in 51.1 innings. As ever, he relies more on his pitchability and control to succeed, but he worked hard in the offseason to get stronger, which has helped his velocity and stamina.

Pinto said he feels healthier at the season’s midpoint than in years past, which he attributes to his strength gains. He said his extra work this offseason was about wanting to make sure he didn’t look back on his final season of college baseball with any regrets.

“I realized I wanted to give it my all this year, to go out with a bang,” he said. “I worked hard, worked out a lot, I tried to get stronger. I didn’t want to have any regrets, saying I wish I did this or that.”

UCI has used five starting pitchers this season and Pinto is the only one who isn’t a freshman. The bullpen is more experienced, as five of UCI’s seven most-used relievers are in at least their fourth year of college baseball, and UCI had to change its original plan when junior righthander Finnegan Wall, who was projected to follow Pinto in the rotation, was lost to injury in the preseason.

But true freshmen Brandon Luu (4-0, 3.94) and Trevor Hansen (4-1, 5.22) have stepped into spots in the weekend rotation and redshirt freshman Ryder Brooks (2-1, 3.15) has become a trusted reliever. For a team to be so reliant on freshmen on the mound—and for them to deliver—is a major credit to the Anteaters and pitching coach Daniel Bibona.

“What gets under talked about, in my opinion, is how good the pitching has been,” Orloff said. “The pitching can get overlooked because of how awesome the offense has been. But the quality of pitching we’ve gotten is a giant part of why we’ve been winning.”

UCI knows it isn’t done. Conference championships aren’t handed out at midseason and the Anteaters are aiming for their third-ever Big West title and an NCAA Tournament run. To do that—and maybe host a regional for just the second time in program history and the first time since 2009—UCI must finish as strong as it started the season.

“We’ve got to stick with what we’re doing,” Pinto said. “I don’t even feel like we’re playing our best baseball yet. We need to stay focused and realize we haven’t done anything yet.”

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