UC Irvine’s Bibona hopes for grand finale

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Danny Bibona’s college baseball career is proof that dreams come true.

When Bibona signed on to join former coach Dave Serrano and the Anteaters before the 2007 season, he wasn’t really sure what to expect. The Anteaters had a solid program but weren’t the juggernaut they are today.

Signing with the Anteaters was a risk, but it was one Bibona was willing to take.

Three years later, Bibona couldn’t see himself with another program. As with former stars Scott Gorgen, Ben Orloff, Cody Cipriano and others, Bibona has become one of many faces of the constantly surging UC Irvine program.

Irvine was a program trying to find an identity before Bibona arrived. Now it is one of the nation’s premier programs. Bibona is to thank for some of that.

Photo Danny Bibona has had a great career at Irvine, but would like to end it with another trip to Omaha.
(UC Irvine)

“I honestly didn’t know if my career and this program would be this good,” Bibona said. “Coming into a program that was top-25 caliber, but not top-10, you certainly aren’t real sure what to expect. But things quickly changed after my freshman season.”

Bibona’s freshman campaign was interesting to say the least. Serrano, who now is the coach at Cal State Fullerton, originally thought of Bibona as a two-way player. After all, he did hit .429 as a senior in high school. However, Serrano and his coaching staff decided that Bibona wasn’t needed in the field and urged him to focus on pitching.

Bibona was a part-time starter and reliever as a freshman and tallied an unimpressive 6.84 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. He struck out 25 batters and walked 10.

“I think what happened to Danny in Year 1 is that he tried a little too hard to be perfect,” Serrano said. “We knew that he’d eventually get some consistency and swagger when he was a freshman. But we weren’t real sure when that actually would come out.”

Serrano bolted for Cal State Fullerton after Bibona’s freshman campaign. Bibona, though, continued to improve and took off as a sophomore, just as Serrano had predicted eventually would happen.

He was a consistent starter for the Anteaters and compiled an impressive 3.08 ERA in 102 1/3 innings. He also struck out 97 and walked 21.

UC Irvine pitching coach Ted Silva remembers watching Bibona come out of the bullpen in an early-season series against Nevada and putting together a dominant performance. From that point on, Silva was a strong believer in what Bibona could accomplish in his Irvine career.

“I think he gained some confidence as a sophomore, and as a result, that started to breed some very good results,” Silva said. “He believed in his stuff as a sophomore, and that really helped him take a huge step forward both mentally and physically.”

Even as successful as his sophomore campaign was, Bibona once again worked hard during the offseason and found ways to improve his game before his junior campaign and first draft season.

Bibona established himself as one of the nation’s premier pitchers as a junior, compiling a 2.63 ERA in 106 innings. The lefty also struck out 108 and walked just 26 batters. For his success, Bibona earned several All-America honors.

Bibona’s hard work also paid off last summer when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the 16th round.

But instead of taking the money that was offered and focusing on a professional career, Bibona felt he had some unfinished business with the Anteaters.

Despite Bibona’s great individual campaign last season, the Anteaters fell short of reaching the College World Series even after earning a No. 1 ranking for several weeks of the regular season and compiling an amazing 22-2 Big West record.

Bibona insists he still may have returned to Irvine for his senior campaign even with a trip to Omaha last season. But the veteran also admits the failed opportunity to reach the CWS was on his mind the entire offseason.

“It definitely sat with me. If we would’ve gotten to Omaha last season and won a national title, it probably would’ve made my decision more difficult. I’m not saying I was 100 percent sure I’d sign if that happened, but it definitely could’ve swayed me,” Bibona said. “Having that bitter taste in my mouth after getting to Omaha my freshman year, I want to get back to the CWS before my career is over.”

The Anteaters welcome back plenty of great pitchers this spring in Christian Bergman and Eric Pettis, but getting Bibona back is icing on the cake for a program that will begin the season with a top-10 ranking and Omaha expectations.

“Getting Danny back this season is just huge,” Silva said. “He’s the one that makes this team go when we open up a series. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we want him to have the ball in a series opener. We’re very thankful he chose to come back.”

With the season nearing, Bibona is focused on some tweaks and at least one new pitch to become a better pitcher and more attractive prospect. He realizes that another big-time campaign could mean more money when it comes to the 2010 MLB draft.

Bibona builds off his fastball and utilizes a strong changeup. However, the lefty added a cutter to his arsenal during the offseason. Combine those skills with his mental makeup and willingness to do anything to help his team, and you’ve got a player who could see his stock greatly increase between now and June.

“Bibona’s stuff is pretty good right now. I’d say it’s even better than what we’ve seen the last two seasons,” Silva said. “He has better touch on his changeup and has added a cutter. I think last season was an eye opener for many people when it comes to his future in professional baseball.

“I think he has a great chance to get to where he wants to be if he doesn’t let distractions get in the way. That’s as a first- or a 21st-rounder.”

Bibona first hopes his dream of winning a national title comes true.

“I kind of wish he would’ve signed,” Serrano said with a laugh. “It’s great for UC Irvine that Bibona is back. But, boy, is it bad for the rest of the Big West.”

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 15, 2010