Coming off three wins in its past four games, the No. 14 UCSB baseball team eyes its first conference series win on the road starting tonight against Long Beach State.
UCSB enters the game 23-8 overall and 4-5 in the Big West after Monday’s nonconference victory against BYU. Santa Barbara put the Cougars into an early deficit and junior pitcher Andrew Vasquez kept hitters guessing for his first win of the season. Vasquez struck out eight in six innings tossed as the Gauchos won 9-5.
Before the contest against BYU, the Gauchos took two games from then-No. 19 Cal State Fullerton, the first series win against the Titans since 2007.
“I think [last] weekend was good for us; we got rewarded for playing well,” senior outfielder/infielder Joey Epperson said. “I think we’ve really been playing good baseball all season. Hopefully the way we’ve been playing continues to reward us this weekend at Long Beach.”
Long Beach State presents a different challenge for Santa Barbara. The Dirtbags have won three of their last seven series and enter 16-18 overall and 3-3 in league.
Long Beach’s winning formula has been pitching and defense. Senior pitcher Josh Frye has been the ace of the staff and pitches the second game of the series. The right-hander has started the last three weeks and the team has gone 3-0 in each of his appearances. Frye has been nearly unhittable, allowing just a run in his last 16 innings and five hits combined during his last two starts.
Just as unhittable has been junior closer Kyle Friedrichs. In six save opportunities, the closer has converted all of them without giving up a run or walk, with just two hits. Opposing batters are hitting a mere .105 against him.
LBSU’s efficiency on defense is shown in its .980 fielding percentage, the eighth highest in the country. In total, the Dirtbags have committed just 27 errors this season.
Although not as reputable as Cal State Fullerton, UCSB learned how tough the Big West is earlier in the season when it lost its series against Hawaii University and will be careful not to repeat its mistake.
“When you have a good year, you have a target on your back,” Epperson said. “I wouldn’t expect Long Beach to be any different. We’re preparing just like we prepared for Fullerton.”
The Gauchos have consistently been able to put up runs on the scoreboard. Statistically, Santa Barbara is top in the league in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and homeruns.
While UCSB’s offensive statistics are a testament to the team’s potent lineup, no hitter in the country this year has been seeing the ball as clear as Epperson.
Epperson leads the nation with a .451 batting average and his numbers have been recognized with him being added to the Midseason “Golden Spikes Award” Watch List — the award given to the top amateur player in the country. His most underrated aspect, however, has been his versatility to hit anywhere in the batting order, from leadoff to the cleanup spot.
“There’s really not a lot of pressure on each individual offensively, and I certainly feel that way,” Epperson said. “I’m really comfortable on the leadoff spot and I’ll hit wherever, and I kind of feel like I’m just going to go for it and do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Just as dominant as Epperson, has been the UCSB bullpen. When leading after six innings, Santa Barbara is 17-0 with much of the credit going to sophomore closer Dillon Tate and his eight saves on the season, second overall in conference.
UCSB will send sophomore Justin Jacome and junior Austin Pettibone for games one and two, respectively. Saturday’s starter is yet to be announced.
First pitch tonight is set for 6 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of April 17, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Cameryn Brock of The Daily Nexus.