Earning national respect is never easy for the Big West Conference, but UC Irvine has a chance to play a big role in the upcoming NCAA baseball tournament.
Monday’s conference champion Anteaters has been selected to play at Stanford Regional with four double-eliminated teams facing Nevada on Friday at 6 p.m. (ESPN3).
It was only two years ago, in 2019, that the UCI thought it had a chance to be selected as the full team for the 64-team event, but was disqualified, despite finishing second in the Big West with Kal.Poly. Only the conference champion UC Santa Barbara made it this season without a large application for the conference.
That season, Long Beach State was left out. The Dirtbags (28-15 total, 26-14 Big West) took third place behind UCI (40-16, 32-8) and UCSB (39-18, 29-11) and won 15 of the last 17 games, but of those 11 of those wins came against the three worst teams in the league with 11 teams. UCSB made the tournament as a large team and will play in the Tucson (Arizona) regional league.
“I would say it goes back to 2019 when we saw it (the selection show) and we thought we deserved to be there, but we didn’t hear our name,” said UCI junior outfielder Mike Peabody. “We have a chip on our (shoulders) and think we are not getting enough credit for our conference and all of the teams in it.”
UCI can change that with a strong presence. The Anteaters are ranked 15th on Baseball America and 17th on the NCAA this week.
However, Peabody – the team leader in RBIs at 54 – implied that his team can’t try to overdo things.
“I don’t think we have to do anything out of our character,” he said. “We have to go and keep playing our kind of game – drop the chips where they are.”
Nevertheless, the team wants to make a lasting impression.
“Yes, we have a chip on our shoulder and we want to get better every day,” said Nathan Church, the new red shirt outfielder who leads the team in triples (eight) and batting average (.355).
“Earlier this year we were voted third in the Big West, nobody would have thought we were as good as we are, and now we’re Big West champions and we’re ready to show people who we are.”
Junior outfielder Jake Palmer believes his team is more than ready to make a splash in the tournament, also because of the challenge of playing in the Big West.
“I know we play a good brand of baseball here,” he said. “The Big West is a very good baseball conference year after year. Of course we thought Coach (Ben) Orloff did a great job planning us great teams and giving us Pac-12 experience.
“Between playing these good teams and what we thought was a very good Big West, I think that prepares us for everyone we play in the postseason.”
The anteaters have an impressive team stroke of .294, but Nevada’s is .321. The wolf pack (25-18, 22-9 Mountain West Conference) is led by senior Dillan Shrum and Dario Gomez in their sophomore year. They hit .479 and .404 respectively. Shrum also leads his team with 15 home runs.
HONORED TO LBSU CALVIN ESTRADA
Long Beach State senior Calvin Estrada was named Big West Field Player of the Week on Monday.
Estrada went 9 for 17 (.529) during the four-game dirtbag sweep against bottom-placed UC Davis (14-43, 8-32). He had eight RBIs – including four in the final on Sunday – with two home runs and a triple among his nine hits.
Estrada finished the season as team leader in home runs (10) and RBIs (36).
LBSU hoped to keep playing
LBSU coach Eric Valenzuela was understandably frustrated that his team didn’t make it through the tournament, but he’s not complaining.
“Disappointing just because I thought our boys were playing their best baseball at the right time,” he said.
The Dirtbags started their season later than most due to the COVID-19 pandemic, playing only three non-conference games in addition to their 40 conference games.
“With everything we’ve been through to end up playing the way we played it definitely hurts,” said Valenzuela. “But I know the committee too, you know, it’s a very difficult deal. You are in a difficult position, especially this year with COVID and all that. ”
Valenzuela said he has plenty of players coming back to support a lovely recruiting class and the focus will be on securing the automatic seat given to the conference master and not leaving their fate in the hands of the committee.
THIS AND THAT
Cal State Northridge Senior Kai Moody ended the regular season with the highest batting average in the Big West (.393). … UCI’s Peabody finished second in RBIs behind Cal Poly’s Brooks Lee (57). … LBSU Junior Johnathan Lavallee chaired the conference in ERA (1.89). … LBSU newcomer Devereaux Harrison was the save leader (10). … UCI Junior Dillon Tatum finished second in home runs (13); Broc Mortensen from UCSB set the pace at 15.