IRVINE — They are jokingly referred to as the tools of ignorance, but it is not as if UC Irvine junior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer did not know.
No one had to remind the former freshman All-American that he had been scuffling at the plate, despite sparkling behind it.
But with the onset of Big West Conference play serving as a new season, Shaeffer seems to have clearly recaptured the form that helped him hit a combined .352 with seven homers and 67 runs batted in his first two seasons, which included 91 starts in 94 games.
Shaeffer, who had four RBIs all season heading into Friday's Big West opener against Cal State Northridge, drove in four in the host Anteaters' 10-4 triumph Saturday. Shaeffer drove in two runs in Friday's 9-6 win. The six RBIs in two games ended a stretch of 17 games without driving in a run. He had just one RBI in his last 20 nonconference games, after driving in three in the season opener.
Shaeffer went two for four Saturday, including his first homer of the season, a two-run shot to left field in the second inning that erased the Matadors' 2-0 lead. He was also two for four Friday, with a two-run double. He is now hitting .267. Just five games ago, he had slipped to a season-low .230 after a one-for-18 stretch.
"I've been just battling through it," said Shaeffer, who while struggling as a hitter, has thrown out two-thirds of the 21 runners attempting to steal this season. He gunned down one more at second Saturday and would have notched a second victim, had not the slide dislodged the ball (and glove) from shortstop D.J. Crumlich.
"We've been winning a lot of games and that's all I really care about. I've been doing what I can behind the plate. When the bat wasn't there, I did the best I could to handle the pitching staff. I felt like I contributed that way. Hopefully, the bat keeps coming and I can add to it, offensively, too."
Shaeffer was one of five who had two hits for the Anteaters (17-6, 2-0 in conference), ranked No. 19 in the USA Today/ESPN poll. Every starter had at least one hit for the winners, who have won three straight after a season-worst four-game losing streak that included two shutouts and limited offensive production.
Senior designated hitter Jon Hurst was two for four with two RBIs, while junior center fielder Christian Ramirez and senior right fielder Sean Madigan each went two for three and scored twice.
Senior third baseman Brian Hernandez went two for four with a walk and stayed in after suffering a dislocated right pinkie finger while diving back to first base in the fifth inning. UCI Coach Mike Gillespie expressed concern that the injury could limit the availability of his third baseman and closer for today's 1 p.m. series finale.
"[Hernandez] is a tough guy but I know that finger is going to get real tender [overnight]," Gillespie said. "I'm not sure he'll be able to play [today]. I'm sure he'll tell us he can [play] and I'll believe him. But I'm a little worried about it."
Gillespie could also be concerned about a lack of stability among his starting pitchers, as freshman Andrew Thurman lasted only 32/3 innings, giving up three hits and three earned runs. Thurman, who was not involved in the decision, walked two and struck out three.
Junior Nick Hoover needed just one pitch to get the third out of the fourth inning, leaving the bases loaded. Hoover went the rest of the way, allowing three hits and one run. He walked one and struck out four in the longest outing of his UCI career. Hoover earned the win and is now 2-1. He has a 1.98 earned-run average in 22 innings this season.
"He absolutely picked us up," Gillespie said of the Hoover. "That's probably the best he has pitched."
Hoover's endurance effort, which included 65 pitches, will allow the Anteaters to have a full stable of arms for today's game. Gillespie said sophomore Matt Whitehouse, who started Tuesday at USC, would get the start today against the Matadors (14-13, 0-2).
Gillespie said Shaeffer had been making solid contact leading into the weekend series and that his confidence should be bolstered by his recent success.
Gillespie also acknowledged Shaeffer's contributions in his first season as the everyday catcher.
"Through it all, he has really played good defense," Gillespie said. "The lack of steal attempts [against the 'Eaters] and the high rate of runners he has thrown out is very good. He doesn't have rocket arm strength, but he is able to [consistently throw out runners], because he is athletic and his feet are quick. His exchange [from glove to throwing hand] is quick, he has a good release and he throws a strike [to the base]."
UCI scored three in the second to claim the lead for good, then added three in the third to create a 6-2 edge.
After Northridge plated one run in the fourth, UCI produced four in the fifth.