The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And this weekend, the #23 UCSB baseball team toppled a giant.
Playing #1 Cal State Fullerton with first place in the Big West on the line, the Gauchos flexed muscles of their own against the top team in the country, taking two out of three from the Titans.
UCSB rolled to an easy 9-1 victory in game one behind a dominating performance from junior starter James Garcia. Santa Barbara then gutted out a 10-inning 7-6 win in game two before falling 6-4 on Sunday. With the upset, UCSB moved to within one game of the Titans in the Big West standings and staked its claim as one of the best teams in the country.
“We wanted to gain some respect in the nation and in the polls,” sophomore center fielder Skip Schumaker said. “Going down there, winning two out of three was our goal. After Saturday’s win we wanted the sweep, but we’re happy with two out of three.”
The Gauchos got on the board first on Friday, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a double from junior first baseman Tyler Von Schell. Senior catcher Donovan Warrecker nearly added to the Santa Barbara lead later in the inning, but was robbed of a home run by Titan center fielder Chris Stringfellow.
Undeterred, UCSB came back strong in the fourth inning, notching three runs to take a 4-1 lead. With two outs, Von Schell got caught in a pickle between first and second, but Fullerton starter Justin Smith was called for a balk, and Von Schell advanced to second. The Gaucho first baseman then came around to score on an RBI double from Warrecker. Making a rare start, junior left fielder Andy Campanella followed with a walk before Schumaker came up with the big blow, a two-run double to left-center.
From there the rout was on, with senior second baseman Chad Peshke lifting off for a solo shot and a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning. UCSB then added two runs in the seventh on a Warrecker double, and two more in the ninth to finish the scoring. Sophomore right fielder Ryan Spilborghs extended his hitting streak to 27 games with a single in the ninth inning.
The nine runs were more than enough support for Garcia, who threw his fifth complete game of the year. The righty gave up only four hits and one run, lowering his ERA to a miniscule 2.48. With the win, Garcia also became the Gauchos’ first 10-game winner since current UCSB Pitching Coach Tom Meyers did it in 1991.
“He’s our horse,” senior third baseman Dave Molidor said of Garcia. “Every really good team has a number one guy who is their ace, and Garcia is our go-to guy. Every time he throws we feel we’re going to win.”
Game two lasted late into the night, and UCSB came out with a hard fought extra-inning win. With the game knotted at six-all after nine innings, Von Schell ripped a single off Fullerton closer Chad Cordero to start the 10th. After Cordero retired, senior shortstop Jeff Bannon and junior designated hitter Jed Stringham got on base before Warrecker delivered a two-out RBI double to give UCSB a 7-6 lead.
“That was just clutch hitting on Donnie’s part,” Stringham said. “Without that we wouldn’t have won. It was a great team effort, and Donnie played the hero.”
Senior closer Jamie Gonzales closed out the Gauchos’ win in the bottom of the tenth. Gonzales sent the Titans down in order, striking out the final batter of the game to secure his eighth save of the season.
“[Gonzales] is dominating,” Schumaker said. “We always turn the ball over to him in the ninth. If we’ve got a one-run lead or more in the ninth we know we’re going to win because of [Gonzales].”
Santa Barbara jumped on top early once again in the second game, taking a 2-0 lead in the second inning. This time Fullerton answered, tying the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the inning. The Titans then went on top 3-2 in the third before UCSB claimed a 6-3 lead with four runs in the sixth, all coming with two outs.
Gaucho senior starter Rylie Ogle then surrendered two runs in the bottom of the sixth, as Fullerton pulled to within 6-5. The Titans then tied it with a run in the seventh, and the two teams remained scoreless until the Warrecker double in the 10th.
The Titans sent their ace to the mound Sunday, attempting to prevent a Santa Barbara sweep. And for eight innings the strategy worked with Kirk Saarloos holding the high-octane Gauchos scoreless for eight innings. But trailing 6-0 in the ninth inning, UCSB staged a spirited rally.
Senior designated hitter Mike Kolbach got the Gauchos going, leading off the final frame with a single. Peshke followed with a single of his own, and after a Molidor strikeout, Von Schell doubled off the center field fence to score Kolbach. Bannon then delivered a three-run bomb to make the score 6-4 and chase Saarloos from the game.
Fullerton brought in Mike Nunez to turn away UCSB, but the reliever fared little better, walking Stringham. Nunez then got weekend star Warrecker to pop out to short before Spilborghs slapped a single through the right side to extend his hitting streak to a team-record 29 games.
With runners on first and second, Schumaker continued the Gauchos’ hit parade, singling to load the bases. Kolbach then came up for the second time in the inning with a chance to tie the game at six, but the Anaheim native lined out to center to end the game.
Sophomore starter Jim Bullard was stuck with the loss for UCSB. The southpaw went 5.2 innings, giving up all six Fullerton runs.
“Our pitchers are always going to duel, and we needed that today,” Stringham said. “Bullard gave us that today. He just left one or two pitches up, but he threw great [Sunday]. Our bats just came up short.”
Though UCSB didn’t become the first team to sweep Fullerton at home since 1993, the Gauchos proved to the country that they are a force that can’t be overlooked.
“I don’t see a team that is that much better than us in the entire nation,” Schumaker said. “If we’re not a top 15 team, then I don’t know who is. Slowly and surely we’re starting to get some respect.”