Two coaches who have helped shape the illustrious college baseball history of Southern California that have shaken hands so many times before, shook hands for what will likely be the final time, Wednesday night in Omaha, Neb.
When it was over, the one that no longer calls Orange County home was the one who was victorious, as Augie Garrido and his Texas Longhorns escaped with a 1-0 win over UC Irvine to eliminate them from the College World Series.
It was a return to prominence for the Anteaters, who returned to Omaha for the first time since 2007 under much different circumstances, but it wasn’t a return to prominence for their 74-year-old head coach Mike Gillespie. The former architect of the USC baseball empire is still prominent, all these years later.
The team that sputtered to the finish of the regular season went on to show incredible resilience winning both Regional and Super Regional rounds on the road in notoriously difficult places to win – national No. 1 seed Oregon State and Oklahoma State – finally playing to its full potential on college baseball’s biggest and toughest stage.
"To be shocked by what we did is unfortunate, because I am not shocked by it," Gillespie said. "We pitched well all year, we weren’t deep on the mound, we were fortunate to dodge injury, and the guys that did the lion’s share of the pitching pitched real well always.
"These are examples of the fact that we’ve been in games all year."
The manner in which they finally lost was heartbreaking but showed the type of grit the team the possessed. All three games they played in T.D. Ameritrade Park – a notorious pitcher’s park – were decided by a two or less runs. Left hander Evan Manarino gave up a home run but still struck out seven. Right hander Andrew Morales dazzled all season and continued through the postseason, returning home to the news that he had won the Senior Class Award.
UC Irvine eliminated from CWS after 1-0 loss to Texas
Offense was thin at times but the Anteaters’ small-ball ways proved effective in the postseason.
"We caught some breaks at both Oregon State and Oklahoma State, and we also played lights out," Gillespie said. We pitched well, when we did get some big time, timely hits, those were two very difficult places to play against both really, really good teams."
It wasn’t a complete reinvention, but there was some reinventing needed for Gillespie to get back to his first College World Series since 2001. At USC he had the heralded, like Mark Prior and Barry Zito, and at UC Irvine he’s had the less-heralded, like Christian Bergman and Andrew Thurman.
But the last time the Anteaters were in Omaha, they were the less-heralded team themselves, playing the role of the upstart team with the quirky mascot. The name across their chests now holds a far different meaning and it’s their postseason mustaches that take quirky title.
Now that it’s done, there is the expected disappointment. But it’s a team that made a run that is more awe-inspiring than surprising.
"Once we got in and we knew we were in, we just went to work and to grind," Manarino said. "We knew we had the talent and we just came out and pitched how we pitched all year, played all year, and things went our way. We knew that we were good enough to do it, and of course you need some breaks along the way and just tonight it didn’t work out, but a very successful season, we thought."
"Everybody’s heart is broken," Gillespie said. "The time will come when we’re objective, and we realize we’ve accomplished a lot and we’ve got much to be proud of."