(Part 2 of an 8-part series previewing the College World Series)
With President Barack Obama booked to give the commencement address, Saturday was already going to be a huge day on the University of California Irvine campus. However, UCI's five graduating baseball seniors will willingly skip the ceremony, though not for political reasons.
Making the second College World Series appearance in school history, the Anteaters are matched against Texas on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Game 1 at Omaha, Neb. President Obama is scheduled to begin his speech approximately 30 minutes before game time.
UCI (40-23) reached Omaha the hard way as the road team in the Regional finals and the Super Regional. Since backing into the NCAA Tournament with eight losses in their final nine regular season games, the Anteaters have righted the ship to say the least. After knocking off No. 1 national seed Oregon State 4-2 in a winner-take-all championship game at the Corvallis Regional, UCI swept Big 12 champion Oklahoma State 8-4 and 1-0 in the Stillwater Super Regional.
In its only other CWS appearance, the Anteaters went 2-2 in 2007.
Besides ending the Big West Conference's four-year absence from the CWS, the Anteaters became the league's first team to qualify since the event was moved from historic Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Fresno State and UCI have combined to help the Big West compile a respectable 33-37 mark in CWS play.
Senior righthander Andrew Morales (11-2, 1.53), a consensus first-team All-American, anchors a pitching staff which sports a 2.76 team earned run average. Morales leads the nation with 136 punchouts in 129 2/3 innings. He has allowed 83 hits and walked 30.
Selected by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 71st pick, Morales was one of five Anteaters taken in last week's Major League Draft.
Morales is complemented in the rotation by sophomore lefthander Elliot Surrey (8-4, 1.99), with junior righty Sam Moore (0-3, 1.88, 23 saves) anchoring the bullpen.
Junior first baseman Connor Spencer, the New York Yankees' eighth-round draft pick, leads the Anteaters at the plate with a .370 batting average, a .459 on base percentage, one home run, five triples, 15 doubles and 44 RBI. Following up an MVP performance in the Corvallis Regional, Spencer went 4-for-7 in the Super Regional.
Junior third baseman Taylor Sparks was the first UCI player to have his name called in the draft, going in the second round (58th overall) to the Cincinnati Reds. Sparks is batting .307 with a .502 slugging percentage from the leadoff slot. He has five home runs, eight triples and 16 doubles.
Junior shortstop Chris Rabago (.252, 19 RBI), the Colorado Rockies' 13th round pick, has put down 22 sacrifice bunts from the No. 2 spot in the batting order.