The UCSB baseball team won its third conference series in a row this weekend, going 2-1 against UC Irvine.
The Anteaters took game one in a high scoring affair 14-9, but the Gauchos surged back for games two and three after a walk off home run by junior left fielder Joey Epperson on Sunday afternoon sealed the series.
Epperson led the Gauchos all weekend with a stellar weekend performance, batting 8-14 with four RBI and six runs scored. Epperson narrowly missed hitting for the cycle on Friday, needing just a home run to complete the feat, but got the four bagger on Sunday in walk off fashion instead.
“Joey has been the hottest guy we’ve had the last five or six games. Every single out he has had has been hit hard,” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said. “That’s the right guy to have at the plate. He does everything right and he is prepared. He absolutely deserved [the walk off] because the way that he has handled himself in the dugout and practice.”
With the series victory, UCSB moves up to 25-20 on the year and 10-8 in the Big West Conference, just one game behind Irvine and Cal Poly for third place. The Anteaters, meanwhile, drop to 29-15 and 11-7 in conference.
In Fridays game one of the series, the Gauchos pitching staff allowed the most runs they have in a single game all season. Sophomore starting pitcher Austin Pettibone, who had been lights out as the staff’s ace, was crushed by the Anteaters. He gave up a season high nine runs through just five and a third innings for his shortest outing of the year.
Both teams were able to put up two runs in the first inning, but the Gauchos scored one in the third and three in the fourth to take a 6-2 lead. UCSB chased junior starting pitcher Andrew Thurman after just four innings of work as he allowed six runs on 10 hits.
“[Friday] was a weird day because their guy was throwing and he is projected to be a second or third round draft pick and our guy was going and he is a sophomore and not draft eligible but pretty good,” Checketts said. “Both these guys have been leaders in the conference for ERA, so going into it you think it’s going to be a 2-1 ballgame, but they both got roughed up.”
Santa Barbara did not hold the lead long however, as Irvine returned with a run in the fifth and exploded for seven in the sixth to jump on Pettibone. Three consecutive doubles topped off the inning that was then followed by a four-run seventh.
The Gauchos would go on to score a run in each of the final three innings but would ultimately fall 14-9 in game one.
On Saturday, UCSB bounced back to tie the series with a 5-3 win thanks to a quality spot start by freshman pitcher Robby Nesovic.
“Against Riverside Justin Jacome rolled his ankle so he is out two to three weeks. He did it covering first and ended up pitching two more innings on it but now the doc has shut him down,” Checketts said. “The freshmen did a good job of picking up the freshman. Nesovic threw enough strikes and was able to battle out of some jams.”
Not only was Nesovic impressive on the mound, throwing six innings and allowing just three runs, but he also went 3-3 at the plate and helped his own cause with a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh.
The Anteaters were able to tag him for three runs on a home run by senior right fielder Scott Gottschling to tie the game in the top of the sixth, but sophomore second baseman Woody Woodward came back to break the tie in the bottom of the sixth to take the lead and set up freshman pitcher Dylan Hecht’s seventh save which included him striking out the side.
In the rubber game of the weekend series, the Gauchos sent sophomore Andrew Vasquez to the hill after a successful return last weekend after he had been out for a month. He pitched five and a third innings and allowed three runs on five hits while striking out six.
“The key point of this game is that we got Andrew Vasquez back and he looked the part,” Checketts said. “He wasn’t perfect, but he sure looked like his old self and maybe a little bit better than his old self. He threw enough strikes and was really good.”
Epperson led off the bottom of the first with a single and scored the game’s first run on a Woodward single. In the third, junior shortstop Brandon Trinkwon and Woodward each drove in a run to put the Gauchos ahead 3-0.
Irvine fought back in the fourth on a two-run home run by Gottschling, his second in two days. The Anteaters would then tie the game in the sixth and take the lead in the seventh, a lead they would hold until the bottom of the ninth inning.
After taking on an insurance run in the top of the ninth UCI led 6-4 with just three outs to go. Red hot sophomore center fielder Cameron Newell singled to lead off the inning and extend his hitting streak to 11 games. Newell stole second and came around to score on a sacrifice fly.
With the Gauchos down by just the one run allowed in the top of the inning, Epperson stepped to the plate with the tying run on first base. Epperson crushed the first pitch he saw to left center field for the walk off two-run home run.
“Obviously I was just in the right place at the right time and I got rewarded for it,” Epperson said. “My at bat is just a testament to the guys before me putting quality at bats together and that’s what we’re all about. We pass the baton and pick each other up.”
Coming up next for the Gauchos will be a three-game road series with Cal State Northridge this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Matadors currently sit in second place in the Big West, four games ahead of UCSB.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of May 6th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Mark Brocher of the Daily Nexus.