IRVINE, Calif. — Every tournament needs a Cinderella story, and the College World Series that begins this weekend has a good one.
The UC Irvine Anteaters didn’t figure to get there, not after losing eight of their last nine games in the regular season and then facing the No. 1 overall seed, Oregon State, in the regionals.
But Wednesday morning they’ll board a flight to Omaha, Neb., and when they land they’ll immediately become the team no one expects to go very far. Which is all right with them.
"We’ll embrace it," pitcher Andrew Morales said. "That’s what they’re calling us, but we know who we are. We’re Anteaters, man. We’re UC Irvine hard-nosed baseball players. That’s the mentality we’ve had and the mentality we’re going to take into Omaha."
The Anteaters (40-23) will face Texas (43-19) Saturday at noon in their CWS opener. Bracket play is double elimination, with the two surviving teams meeting in a best-of-three championship series.
There’s no mistaking which team is the underdog. UC Irvine doesn’t have a nationally recognized program like six-time national champion Texas or Louisville, which is returning to the CWS for a second consecutive year.
I’m not going to Omaha to lose two and go home
-- UC Irvine first baseman Connor Spencer
But that’s OK. The Anteaters are grinders, the only California team in the tournament and one that already knows the ups and downs that can happen during the season. The school’s only other appearance in the CWS was 2007.
Their expectations at the start of the season weren’t even to get to Omaha. They would have been satisfied with just making the playoffs.
"Our coach told us in the beginning of the season that we were going to go 5-55," first baseman Connor Spencer said. "I think that lit a fire under all our butts. But we knew how good we could be if we really competed."
The Anteaters finished third in the Big West behind Cal Poly and Long Beach State and were one of the last teams to earn a spot in the NCAA regionals. But they hardly had momentum on their side.
They went to Corvallis having lost their last six games but defeated Nevada Las Vegas and took two of three from the Beavers. Then they eliminated Oklahoma State in the super regional at Stillwater, Okla.
"For people to see what we’ve done on paper and the skid we had at the end of the season, it looks really bad," said Morales, who is Irvine’s likely starter Saturday. "But most of those games were one-run games where we were ahead in the seventh. A lot of people don’t even know that we went on two 10-game win streaks in the middle of the year. We also started 15-1 in conference and that’s something people don’t highlight.
"But we took down the No. 1 team (Oregon State) and we swept Oklahoma State. Everyone here is on the same page."
If nothing else, the Anteaters’ drive to the CWS proved they belong with the elite teams in college baseball. Their coach, Mike Gillespie, said as much this week, although he couldn’t speak Tuesday because of laryngitis.
But Gillespie did provide some quotes through the school’s sports information department, including this: "Certainly our experience with OSU and OK State has buoyed the players’ confidence. We all know that we’ll run into teams of the stature of those two, but we should understand that we’ve more than held our own, not only with those two but many others on the schedule."
At the CWS, the Anteaters will undoubtedly rely on their pitching. Offensively, they hit just 12 home runs during the season and averaged 4.4 runs a game. But Morales was 11-2 with a 1.53 ERA as a starter, and the pitching staff fashioned an impressive 2.76 team ERA with eight shutouts.
Morales, who is from Covina, described his style this way: "I’ll throw everything but the kitchen sink at you. I’ll do whatever it takes to get a batter out."
Still, the offense will have to produce runs to keep up with some of the more potent offensives they’ll be facing.
Our coach told us in the beginning of the season that we were going to go 5-55…that lit a fire under all our butts.
-- Conner Spencer
"Our pitching has been fabulous all year, but the offense needs to step up and support them," Spencer said. "We’re based on doing the little things right and playing fundamentally sound baseball. If we get the leadoff guy on, we’re going to bunt him over and then get a knock to score him."
Will it be enough? The Anteaters know they’re on a wonderful ride, and even if they get eliminated, it won’t ruin a successful season. But now that they’re here, they’re confident they make their Cinderella story a happy one.
"I’m not going to Omaha to lose two and go home," Spencer said. "I’m going to Omaha with one thing in mind and that’s to win the national championship."