TURLOCK -- In many ways, this has been a dreamlike baseball season for Cal State Stanislaus third baseman Jeff Bellotti.
Bellotti returned to the field after two years away from the game, helping the Warriors reach the West Region playoffs for the first time as a Division II team. They open with host Chico State today at 7 p.m.
Bellotti is hitting .306, second on the team with 14 doubles, third with 29 RBIs and was named to the All-California Collegiate Athletic Association first team.
This season also has been much harder than Bellotti expected. Early in the year he was diagnosed with protein deficiency in his legs, creating agonizing pain in his muscles which has altered the way he walks and plays.
No amount of protein shakes or medication helped. The only recommendation doctors made was to get some rest. Not possible for Bellotti, who played shortstop all his life until this season. He switched to the less-demanding third base, takes painkillers before games and withstands the hurt when the drugs wear off.
"Adrenaline takes over during games and I know I'm going to suffer that night," Bellotti said. "The trainers don't travel with us, so I take ice baths in hotel tubs. I take a lot of ibuprofen."
The pain is worth it for the senior criminology major, who worked too hard to get back in baseball shape to let the sudden muscle syndrome sideline him.
Bellotti was on the last Stanislaus team to make the CCAA playoffs in 2003. But baseball felt more like work. Bellotti, who signed with Stanislaus out of Amador High in Sutter Creek, wasn't enjoying himself. He couldn't stand being miserable, especially not in a game he'd played since he was old enough to hold a ball.
"If I had stayed and toughed it out, I don't think I ever would have had fun," Bellotti said. "I disappointed a lot of people when I did that. My teammates, coach, my family."
Bellotti tried to stay in school at Stanislaus, but it felt weird not working out with the team and answering questions about what happened from classmates who associated him with the Warriors.
He transferred to Sacramento State, thinking he might play for the Hornets, but injured his right shoulder playing a "friendly" game of pick-up football during winter break in 2005.
An avid golfer, he started playing more often as part of his rehab process. The competition was something that made him realize how much he missed baseball. His competitive fire rekindled, Bellotti had another hard decision to make.
His father wished him luck in calling coach Kenny Leonesio.
"I was nervous," Bellotti said. "I did not want to call him. I didn't exactly leave on good terms. He said, 'Let's have a meeting.' "
Bellotti's passion got him back in the mix, but he had to earn a spot in fall practices. He said he worked harder than ever to prove himself to Leonesio. The game had always come easy for him, Bellotti said. Looking back, he felt like he cruised through his high school years and still won MVP honors.
Given a second chance, Bellotti attacked every day with playoffs in mind, as well as the pride of his family who always got so much joy out of watching him play.
"I didn't do it for me," Bellotti said. "I did it for my friends and family. The first game back here I saw my family in the stands and I almost lost it."
Leonesio said Bellotti has been an inspiration to the Warriors. At a preseason dinner, Bellotti made a speech about experiencing playoffs as a freshman, and wanting this year's team to feel that rush, too.
"The world works in weird ways," Bellotti said. "This is more than I could have ever expected when I came back. In those couple years off, I matured, so much as a player and as a person."
Bellotti missed the first game of a four-game series at Cal Poly Pomona, as the Warriors were fighting to make the playoffs, to attend the funeral of his maternal grandmother, who died unexpectedly.
He rejoined the team for the remaining games, giving the team a much-needed lift emotionally and offensively. Stanislaus won the last three games with Bellotti going 7 for 12 with six runs and six RBIs. He had five hits and three RBIs in the series finale, a 13-8 victory which clinched a CCAA playoff spot.
"He comes up with big hit after big hit and makes plays," Leonesio said. "How can you not look at him and be inspired?"
Bee staff writer Kelly Jones can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.