Led by a core group of veterans and a talented crop of incoming players, the UCSB baseball team is focused on the bigger picture this year. Picked to finish third in the preseason poll, the Gauchos are out to prove that last year’s postseason appearance was no fluke.
“Our goal is always to win the conference and always go to [the College World Series],” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said.
Expectations for the Gauchos run high after reaching the postseason for the first time since 2002. UCSB ended with six consecutive series wins and a second-place finish in the Big West to give the team an at-large berth, losing in the regionals.
Much like last year, the Gauchos will go as far as their pitching takes them. UCSB will rely on a deep pitching rotation that returns nine hurlers, including the entire rotation from 2013 and the backend of the bullpen.
Despite the staff being without star junior pitcher Austin Pettibone for the first month of the season after he suffered a shoulder injury, UCSB has enough arms to make up for his absence. Looking to fill in the role will be sophomore pitcher Dylan Hecht, who moves from closer to the top of the team’s rotation.
Last season, Hecht emerged as one of the top closers in the Big West. With a fastball that can reach 97 mph, Hecht earned nine saves and finished with a 1.83 ERA on his way to earning All-Big West honors. Joining Hecht in the rotation will be sophomores Justin Jacome and Robbie Nesovic; each are coming off solid freshman campaigns.
“We’re really deep, there’s kind of no separation between some of our starters, our middle relief and closer,” Checketts said. “We’ve got some depth. We’re 10 to 12 deep, and they’re competitive.”
Pitching wasn’t the only weapon in the Gauchos’ arsenal last season, as its offense was in the top three in most Big West offensive categories. Under hitting coach Jason Hawkins, the Gauchos were near the top in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs.
Junior first baseman Tyler Kuresa appeared in all games for UCSB last season and led the team in hits, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. Kuresa will be joined by Nesovic who does double duty as a utility player. Nesovic ended last year’s campaign with a .326 batting average and 33 RBIs on his way to receiving Big West Freshman Player of the Year.
With a similar approach on offense this year, the Gauchos will rely more on small ball to generate runs on the board rather than trying to hit for the fences.
“We have a pretty solid lineup one through nine. We like to run and hit-and-run, we attempt to run a more West Coast Offense,” Checketts said. “I think you’ll see some [power] out of the middle of the order, but not an unbelievable amount.”
The schedule will not be easy for the Gauchos who will be tested from the start. Already in a conference that features baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton, UCSB will also face off against defending national champion UCLA and other notable opponents such as Arizona and Mississippi State.
After its opening game against NC State was cancelled, the Gauchos will open the season next week.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of The Daily Nexus.