With conference play now under way, the No. 13 UCSB baseball team heads to rival Cal Poly tomorrow for its first Big West road trip of the season.
“It’s an important series from the standpoint that every series we play is going to be important,” senior infielder/outfielder Joey Epperson said. “There’s a good number of teams in the Big West that have a chance to win this year … It’s definitely a game with intensity and some emotion behind it.”
Santa Barbara enters with a 19-5 overall record and 1-2 in Big West games after dropping the conference opening series to Hawaii. It was the first time the Gauchos dropped a three-game set dating back to last year and the first time this season UCSB showed signs of inconsistency after having its best start to a campaign since 1984.
“I think they’re well aware of what to expect and how competitive our conference is,” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs are ranked seventh in the nation with a 24-4 overall record and are fresh off a sweep of UC Davis to start Big West play at 3-0.
Given each team’s hot start, this weekend’s series will match the league’s statistically best against each other.
UCSB’s .307 batting average is ranked first, ten points higher than second-place Cal Poly at .298. For the Gauchos, junior first baseman Tyler Kuresa has been the team’s run producer and power hitter, leading the team with 29 RBIs and seven homeruns. Epperson is ranked second in the nation in batting average with a .478 clip and slugging an impressive .630.
“I have had some success, but there’s no extra pressure on me,” Epperson said. “I kind of feel like I can just go up and put the barrel on the baseball and have a quality at-bat.”
Cal Poly boasts a solid lineup down the order with four hitters hitting above .300. Junior outfielder Nick Torres leads the teams with four homeruns and 28 RBIs, to go along with a .355 batting average, second-best in the lineup.
With two of the best offenses squaring off against each other, pitching will be crucial with UCSB’s depth being vital in gaining the upper hand.
Junior pitcher Austin Pettibone made his second appearance of the year against Hawaii in his comeback from injury sustained during the offseason. Limited to pitch count, the team’s ace tossed five innings of three-hit ball and gave up no runs. Slated to pitch this weekend, Checketts will still keep the right-hander to a pitch count, albeit a higher one.
“The last two [starts] were more restricted or there were certain amounts of pitches I could make,” Pettibone said. “This [start] is kind of based on how I’m feeling. If I feel good, I’ll keep going and if I don’t, then I’ll pass it on to the bullpen.”
The Mustangs will counter with junior Matt Imhof on the mound. The lefty is ranked near the top with a 1.05 ERA and is 6-1 on the season.
First pitch Friday at Baggett Stadium is set for 6 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of April 3rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.