Photo evidence of how close UCI was to returning to Omaha in 2011.

It’s time to bust out the sunflower seeds and smell the freshly cut grass, because Anteater baseball is upon us once again!

Last year’s tragic collapse is still a hard memory to shake; I don’t think I can ever bring myself to watch another game at the ESPNZone in Downtown Disney. The fact that it was UCI’s second major collapse during my four years as a student—I entered and exited college against LSU and UVA—is just insult to injury. But C’est la vie. A new slate of games and a new group of ’Eaters to cheer for are just around the river bend.

First up, a preview of UCI’s strength year in and year out—their pitching staff.

The (Probable) Starting Rotation (last season’s stats in parenthesis):

1. JR Matt Whitehouse (4-0, 2.12 ERA, 23 G, 12 GS, 72.1 IP)

2. SR Crosby Slaught (7-2, 3.93ERA, 15 G, 14 GS, 68.2 IP)

3. SO Andrew Thurman (4-3, 3.82 ERA, 23 G, 8 GS, 75.1 IP)

4. RS SO Evan Brock (6-4, 3.14 ERA, 20 G, 6 GS, 63 IP [2010 numbers])

5. JR Kyle Hooper (3-0, 4.06 ERA, 17 G, 6 GS, 44.1 IP)

Despite the loss of ace Matt Summers, who was drafted and signed by the Minnesota Twins, the Anteater pitching staff looks very strong going into 2012. In fact, it is so deep that I have five starters here even though college teams usually only start four guys.

The wildcard in the mix is the return of 6’1” right-hander Evan Brock, who was an absolute stud for the 2010 team. Brock came on strong during his freshman season, winding up pitching well enough in postseason play to be named to the all-regional team in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional. He had a K/9 of approximately 9 that year, holding opponents to a .162 batting average. If Brock can return to his previous form after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, UCI will have a definite surplus in bona fide starters—a great problem to have.

Friday’s opening day starter is arguably the least impressive pitcher of the bunch—redshirt senior Crosby Slaught. The lanky righthander gets the start by virtue of his experience, as Slaught is the only remaining Anteater to have experienced both the 2008 Alex Box super regional and last year’s UVA super regional. The soft-tossing Slaught is a pitch-to-contact kind of guy despite his height; he also boasts a sparkling 16-3 all-time UCI record on the mound, so there must be a method to his madness. Unlike some of the other guys, Slaught loses a lot of his effectiveness coming out of the pen, and thus should maintain a starting role all year long. Like fifth-year player Sean Madigan last year, Slaught can play a great role in mentoring future generations of Anteater stars with how things are done at Anteater Ballpark.

Meet Matt Whitehouse, 2012 Anteater Ace. (AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff)

Matt Whitehouse is the Saturday starter this weekend, but UCI will need him to keep on pitching like an ace this season. After only throwing six frames in his freshman season, Whitehouse was the breakout star of 2011, putting up a ridiculously low 2.12 ERA last year in 72.1 innings. The crafty southpaw was named a preseason All-American and may very well go pro if he has another campaign in2012 like 2011.

Andrew Thurman really came on strong last season after spending the first half of the season as a valuable bullpen guy. It was Thurman who started and performed capably in game three against UCLA in the Regional last year. It was Thurman who had more innings on the year than Slaught, despite only getting eight starts to Slaught’s 14. And it will be Thurman who will get the ball as the de facto No. 3 starter to start the season. A positive sign from the past summer: Thurman pitched in the Cape Cod league, amateur baseball’s best summer league, and put up a 3.82 ERA that matched his season number. This guy is the real deal.

Last but not least is the enigma that is Kyle Hooper. The one guy that made MLB draft prospect lists from the UCI staff also happens to be the guy who had the worst ERA on the entire staff last year. Such is the wacky reality of projectability, and valuing velocity and height over control and intangibles. Hooper is the only one of the big three pitching recruits from the class of 2013 left, (with both Beau Wright and Paul Strong now pitching in the minors without ever throwing a pitch for UCI) and this year is as good as any for him to finally put things all together. He has the gas on the fastball; he just needs to be able to locate the ball better. It will be interesting to see if UCI starts him for weekday games or perhaps puts him in a steadier bullpen role.

The Bullpen

1. SO Phillip Ferragamo (2-0, 2.03 ERA, 19 G, 0 SV, 26.2 IP)

2. SO Jimmy Litchfield (2-1, 2.89 ERA, 34 G, 3 SV, 43.2 IP)

3. RS JR Andy Lines (5-2, 2.57 ERA, 22 G, 0 SV, 28 IP)

4. RS SR Nick Hoover (2-4, 3.44 ERA, 22 G, 0 SV, 34 IP)

5. RS SO Mitch Merten / RS JR Mark Trentacosta / JR Josh Derry / SO Sebastian Santos / JR Race Parmenter

6. FR Michael Miller / Kyle Davis / Sam Moore

With the exception of Nick Hoover, 2011 was a huge year for unproven guys establishing themselves as vital cogs in the bullpen. Along with third baseman turned closer Brian Hernandez, Ferragamo, Litchfield, and Lines performed so well that they actually moved ahead of Hoover in crucial situations for much of the season. This year, with four proven guys coming back as well as whoever doesn’t get starts from the aforementioned quintet, the bullpen looks like an area of strength unmatched in previous years. The one uncertainty is closer, where my guess is Ferragamo stepping in and getting the chance to close games.

The giant 6’8” Ferragamo really came on strong last season, ending his freshman campaign with seven scoreless appearances. With his height, Ferragamo releases the ball very close to home plate, clearly making many opposing batters feel intimidated in the box. Striking out 24 batters in 26.2 innings last season, it’s clear that Phil has the firepower necessary to take over a late inning role full-time.

Litchfield and Lines share the soft-tossing lefty specialist role with a few extra responsibilities thrown in for good measure. Litchfield was one of the biggest surprises last year, becoming Coach Mike Gillespie’s most trusted reliever down the stretch. A soft-tosser who specializes in a tricky change-up and other off-speed junk, it will be interesting to see if Litchfield can improve from last season’s solid debut. Meanwhile, Lines will draw a few strategic starts from Gillespie when he wants to get a weekday lefty starter into the mix. After an underwhelming freshman season that saw Lines walk more guys than innings pitched, last season was a huge improvement. 2012 should be another good year for the 6’3” lefty.

Nick Hoover is a guy who often times flies under the radar, but then will pop up in a game and just refuse to come out. Even though he is firmly entrenched in the bullpen, Hoover can give you four or five innings in relief, and seems to have a knack for completely stymieing an offense that was previously doing well. Hoover actually had a better year in 2010, and seemed to hit a bit of a rut in 2011. Hopefully, he’ll put it back together for his final season, supplying another trustworthy piece in the Anteater ’pen and another headline as good as this one.

Compared to last year, when UCI had to have a number of guys step up after the loss of Daniel Bibona, Christian Bergman, Eric Pettis, Kyle Necke and Brock, there is a lot less pressure on the unproven guys and newcomers for 2012. If just one or two guys from group five and six pitch their way into regular usage, it will be one of the deepest pitching staffs UCI has ever had. Rip ’em ’Eaters!