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January 10, 2008

Top 25 Countdown: No. 23 UC Irvine

Head coach: Mike Gillespie
Last season: 47-17, 15-6 in Big West
Postseason: The Eaters caught everyone's attention by having an impressive 2007 campaign. After finishing a game out of first in conference, the Eaters won a Regional and Super Regional before getting eliminated from the CWS by Oregon State.
2008 breakdown: Probable starters | Overview | Offense | Starting pitching | Bullpen | Outlook

Overview

Despite what some might think, the state of UC Irvine baseball is good.

When John Savage left the school for UCLA, some thought the Eaters were in trouble. Now they're in the same situation with Dave Serrano heading up the road to Cal State Fullerton.

Once again, we expect the Eaters to be just fine with Mike Gillespie's talented coaching staff in charge.

They still have some question marks.

UC IRVINE ANTEATERS
Junior outfielder Ollie Linton is the sparkplug that gets the Eaters going.

Probable Starting Lineup
C Aaron Lowenstein
1B Jeff Cusick
2B Josh Tavelli
SS Ben Orloff
3B Casey Stevenson
OF Sean Madigan
OF Ollie Linton
OF Tony Asaro
DH Francis Larson
SP Scott Gorgen
SP Bryce Stowell
SP Eric Pettis

The Eaters must replace several offensive contributors and leaders from last year's CWS team. That won't be easy.

The silver lining could be the pitching staff.

UC Irvine welcomes back two of three weekend starters, and is also excited about Bryce Stowell's ability to become a front-line starter in the Big West.

Even with some questions to answer, the Eaters should once again compete for the Big West title.

Offense

Like many teams, UC Irvine enters the spring with some huge holes to fill at the plate.

The Eaters finished last season with a .317 team batting average. They also had several veterans with Cody Cipriano, Matt Morris, Taylor Holiday and Bryan Petersen leading the charge.

Those guys are gone.

As the Eaters move forward, they hope for more production from outfielder Ollie Linton, catcher Aaron Lowenstein, shortstop Ben Orloff and first baseman Jeff Cusick, among others.

Linton is the Eaters' sparkplug and finished last season with a .342 batting average. Meanwhile, Orloff hit .324, Cusick hit .319 and Lowenstein ended the year with a .296 batting average.

The Eaters are also looking for more production from Francis Larson, who finished last season with a .233 batting average.

Moving forward, the offense remains UC Irvine's biggest question mark. It could also be the difference between a Regional berth and another trip to the CWS.

Starting pitching

With talented right-handers Scott Gorgen and Wes Etheridge leading the charge last season, the Eaters had an impressive one-two punch. While Etheridge is now a professional, Gorgen is back for more action.

The gritty veteran went 13-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 136 2/3 innings of work last season. He also struck out 117 and walked 41, while opponents hit him at a .235 clip.

The Eaters also welcome back sophomore right-hander Eric Pettis, who started seven games and appeared in 25 last season. He finished the year a perfect 4-0 with a 4.53 ERA in 59 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 37 and walked 21, while opponents hit him at a .258 clip.

UC Irvine also expects Bryce Stowell to be a starter.

Stowell transferred from Pepperdine to UC Irvine before last season, but was unable to play. As a freshman for the Waves, the right-hander threw 16 1/3 innings and allowed 22 hits.

Replacing Etheridge could be tough, but the Eaters should be in good shape with Gorgen, Pettis and Stowell.

Bullpen

The Eaters had almost everything go their way last season. The weekend rotation was in great hands, the offense was productive and the bullpen was led by two talented arms.

Blair Erickson and Dylan Axelrod spearheaded the bullpen last season. But with both pitchers now in the professional ranks, the Eaters will lean heavily on senior left-hander Tom Calahan.

As a junior last season, Calahan appeared in 22 games and had a 1.61 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 24 and walked 7, while opponents hit him at a .215 clip.

Sophomores Daniel Bibona and Christian Bergman should also factor into the equation. Bibona made 16 appearances last season, while Bergman made 14 appearances and had a 4.98 ERA in 21 2/3 innings of work.

The Eaters will also rely on right-handers Kyle Necke and Benji Anaya and left-hander Noel Avison to log significant innings. Necke could become the closer, while Avison and Anaya are candidates for middle relief.

Outlook with postseason forecast
After making a bold statement last season with a College World Series berth, UC Irvine is hoping to continue its winning ways this spring. The Eaters have some huge holes to fill, but also welcome back several key components. Irvine must also deal with the loss of head coach Dave Serrano. However, Mike Gillespie is a more than adequate replacement. While the pitching staff should be in good shape with the return of weekend starters Scott Gorgen and Eric Pettis, the offensive lineup leaves something to be desired. If the Eaters rise to the occasion offensively, they should be in great shape. If not, the pitching staff must do even more. Either way, UC Irvine now expects to make an annual trip to Omaha.

Shoes to Fill

With two of three weekend starters back in the mix, the UC Irvine weekend rotation should be in good shape. However, replacing veteran Wes Etheridge could be tougher than expected.

The offensive lineup is UC Irvine's biggest concern.

The Eaters are without position players Matt Morris, Cody Cipriano, Bryan Petersen and Taylor Holiday, among others.

Holiday, Morris and Cipriano each hit over .338 last season, while Petersen hit .323 with five homers and 38 RBIs.

The Eaters have some huge holes to fill at the plate, but Linton and others could make the transition easier.

Must Step Up

With the offense searching for an identity to start the season, the Eaters need the pitching staff to rise to the occasion.

Junior right-hander Scott Gorgen is an All-American and leads the charge, while sophomore right-handers Eric Pettis and Bryce Stowell need to step up.

As a freshman last season, Pettis went 4-0 with a 4.53 ERA in 59 2/3 innings of work. He also limited opposing teams to a .258 batting average.

After transferring to UC Irvine from Pepperdine, Stowell missed last season because of transfer issues. Now he hopes to become a front-line pitcher for the Eaters.

If Pettis and Stowell meet expectations, it will help Gillespie and his coaching staff sleep better at night.

Impact Newcomer

As the Eaters made history with a trip to Omaha last season, they were led at the plate by several veterans.

Third baseman Tyler Vaughn was one of those guys.

Vaughn had an integral role and finished last season with a .305 batting average. Hoping to adequately replace him, the Eaters will look to newcomer Casey Stevenson to bridge the gap.

Stevenson has an impressive resume. As a freshman at College of the Canyons last season, he broke the single-season record for hits with 75. He also batted .397 with five homers, 13 doubles and 48 RBIs.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 25. Coming tomorrow: No. 22.