For most of his UC Irvine baseball career, Taylor Sparks has been more about detonating rallies than igniting them. But after a postseason move to the leadoff spot, the former cleanup hitter has helped the Anteaters explode back onto college baseball's biggest stage.
Sparks, drafted No. 58 overall by the Cincinnati Reds last week, has gone 11 for 24 in six postseason games (.458) to help UCI advance to the College World Series for the second time in school history.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior third baseman scored eight combined runs in UCI's run through the Corvallis Regional, where it upset No. 1 national seed Oregon State, then a Super Regional sweep at No. 10-ranked Oklahoma State. In Corvallis, he hit his fifth home run of the season, his first in 31 games over a span of nearly two months, and his postseason also included a triple and two doubles to help the 'Eaters make a surprising run to Omaha. He went four for five in the opening win at Oklahoma State.
"It was really no more complicated than doing something that would maybe take a little pressure off of him," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said of the impromptu change in the batting order that helped restore order to a UCI offense that had contributed to an 0-8 Big West Conference finish. That late-season slide, including a six-game losing streak to end the regular season, dropped the 'Eaters from first to third in the conference standings and made them one of the final four teams granted an at-large berth into the 64-team NCAA tournament field.
The aforementioned pressure, magnified by being draft eligible, was also forged by expectations stemming from a watershed sophomore season.
In 2013, Sparks hit .360 with 10 home runs and 50 runs batted in in 55 games. He was named Big West Co-Player of the Year, third-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, and captured the national Gold Glove Award for his sterling defense.
With rare power and athleticism, as well as a notable reduction in what once were gaping holes in his swing, Sparks entered 2014 with ballyhoo that included consensus preseason All-American honors.
Then he opened the season hitless in his first 17 at-bats, with eight strikeouts.
He quickly gathered himself, reeling off a 15-game hitting streak that produced a .446 batting average and had hits in 32 of 37 games from Feb. 21 through April 26, a stretch in which he batted .357.
But he went 13 for 60 in his final 16 regular-season games (.217) with 21 of his 67 strikeouts. In the final 29 games of the regular season, Sparks had just 10 RBIs.
"Basically, from the beginning, nothing really went my way," said Sparks, whose 18 career homers and 15 career triples, including eight this season to share the NCAA lead, rank fourth and third, respectively, in school annals. "I tried to tweak things, trying to mess with my swing, but I was probably over thinking it.
"I got my swing back a little there in the middle of the season. Then, the regional is when I really got hit. Something clicked and I got my rhythm back. I was able to have my quick hands and stay flat [through the strike zone]."
Sparks agreed that the move to leadoff helped him, even if merely on a subconscious level. And, he said, once his professional future was secure, he was able to relax further.
"When I got drafted [for the second time, having been chosen in the 25th round by the Cleveland Indians out of St. John Bosco High], it was a huge relief," said Sparks, whose father, Don Sparks, was a fifth-round draft pick of the New York Yankees out of Loyola Marymount University in 1988. Don Sparks amassed 1,102 hits in nine minor-league seasons, reaching as high as triple-A. "I didn't have to worry about my career and, especially still playing, it gave me an opportunity to really focus and bear down on what's going on [in the postseason]. It was a dream come true to get drafted and I am thankful to the Reds for drafting me."
Gillespie said he never discussed the shift to leadoff with Sparks, but was sure there would be no protest.
"He is such a great guy, I knew he wouldn't disagree with it, even if he disagreed with it," Gillespie said. "We just wrote his name at the top of the lineup. That's how uncomplicated it was."
Sparks said it has been a good fit.
"I'm not actually sure how, technically, it has affected me, because I feel like I'm taking the same at-bats I was [in the cleanup spot]," Sparks said. "But for some reason, I am liking it in the one spot. It's good to go up there and start something."
Sparks, now hitting .307, shares the team lead with five homers and his 44 runs top his teammates. His 74 hits rank second on the team, his 34 RBIs are third, and he shares the team lead with eight stolen bases.
"He has been a catalyst for our offense, especially leading off the game," UCI sophomore pitcher Elliot Surrey said. "He has really started to click in the playoffs and it's a really good time for him to get hot. He's our biggest power guy, but he has been a real momentum starter for us as a leadoff hitter.
"I think people put a lot of expectations on him and I think that kind of stressed him out a little bit," Surrey said. "But now, all those expectations are gone. It's a new season; it's playoffs. And he doesn't have the stress of worrying about the draft anymore. I think that was a huge key to the confidence he has had in the playoffs."
Sparks said his collegiate baseball experience has allowed him to refine his swing and prepared him for a professional future he has longed for since childhood.
"Having my dad be able to extend his career into pro baseball has really been a motivating factor for me," Sparks said. "He was knocking at the [MLB] door and he has really influenced me, in both the mental and physical aspects of the game. Watching him as a kid was awesome to see. Now that I'm here [on the cusp of pro ball], I'm really relishing it."