UC Irvine junior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer ranks ninth among Anteaters baseball regulars with a .254 batting average and he enters Friday's NCAA Los Angeles Regional having gone two for 28 in his last nine games with nine strikeouts.
But when the Anteaters (39-16) take the field at 2 p.m. against Fresno State (40-14) in the opening round, Shaeffer, a first-team All-Big West Conference performer, may be one of Coach Mike Gillespie's best weapons.
Shaeffer, a former freshman All-American who was utilized as a designated hitter and outfielder his first two seasons, has blossomed into a defensive force behind the plate.
He has thrown out 33 of 53 runners attempting to steal this season, a 64% success rate that leads the nation.
Schaeffer, who replaced departed senior Francis Larson, a first-team all-conference catcher last season, is also adept at blocking balls in the dirt and his ability to work with pitchers has helped the Anteaters post a 2.97 staff earned-run average.
"People have said I have quick feet and I have a good transfer [from glove to throwing hand]," said Shaeffer, who has one home run and 25 runs batted in.
"Over the summer, I worked a lot on my arm strength and I think that came into play where the carry on the ball down to second was a lot better. I felt like I was always pretty good, but I got my shot this year to show it a little bit."
Shaeffer is one of four Anteaters to start all 55 regular-season games, an unusual feat for a position as physically taxing as catcher.
"My legs are fresh," Shaeffer said. "I went about halfway through the season and our trainer [Jose Sanchez] told me I should starting getting in the ice bath and that's worked miracles. It's crazy, I never thought of it before. Track people do it all the time after they run. It just relieves any soreness I have."
Shaeffer said he typically stands up to his waist in ice water twice a week, usually after games on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Fresno State Coach Mike Batesole, who guided Cal State Northridge to the Big West Conference title in 2002, has enlisted former Matadors Coach, Steve Rousey as his pitching coach this season. Batesole said he and Rousey know the Big West very well and Batesole was not shy about singing the conference's praises during Thursday's workout day at UCLA.
"[The Big West] is probably the most underrated league in the country," said Batesole, before quickly ratcheting up the hyperbole. "For my money, it's the best league in the country. You bring any of those SEC teams and put them in the Big West and it would be interesting to see how it would pan out. The top four or five teams in the Big West, year-in and year-out, are the most-disciplined teams that play the best baseball in the country."
UC Irvine junior starting pitcher Matt Summers was named second-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball on Monday. The Big West Pitcher of the Year, who is 10-2 with a 1.74 ERA, will start Friday against Fresno State senior Greg Gonzalez, a first-team All-American.
Gonzalez (11-0 with a 1.43 ERA), was one of two Bulldogs to garner All-American recognition, as junior outfielder Dusty Robinson (.318, 16 homers, 54 RBIs and 10 stolen bases) was a third-team honoree.
The key to Gonzalez's success this season, he said, was attributable to a change, while the ability of Robinson to match his 2010 home run total despite an NCAA-induced shift to less-potent bats, was due to his ability to keep things the same.
"Rousey put a cutter on him a couple weeks before the start of the season and that changed everything," Batesole said of Gonzalez, who was 8-2 with a 6.54 ERA in 2010, after transferring from a community college. "He was a little hit and miss last year. When his changeup was on, he could be really good. He had a bigger curveball [last season]. Tightening up that curveball and turning it into a cutter now gives him two pitches he can throw to both sides of the plate in any count."
Robinson, the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year who has 47 career homers, said his ability to replicate his swing has helped him keep from experiencing a decrease in power.
"I've been working on my swing with Coach Batesole," Robinson said of the key to his success with the new bats. "He's the man behind the swing. You just stay with your swing, get backspin and let balls work. It's not trying to hit the ball, it's trying to hit doubles and get backspin."