The No. 19 UCSB baseball team has hit a rough stretch at the most inopportune time of the season. With only three Big West series remaining, the Gauchos will need to win this weekend at home against UC Riverside to strengthen their playoff chances.
“We have to win the rest of our series,” junior second baseman Woody Woodward said. “We just need to score more runs than the other team. It sounds simple, but we have to hit when we don’t pitch and pitch when we don’t hit.”
UCSB limps home with some serious battle scars after last weekend’s tough series against Long Beach State. The Gauchos ended up on the wrong side of one-run games twice against LBSU before winning the series finale. Standing 24-10 overall and 5-7 in the Big West conference, Santa Barbara is in fifth place in the standings.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure because we know we’re a good team,” Woodward said. “And we know that we can go places. We have to take it one game at a time and get better every day.”
UCR has been the conference’s biggest overachievers so far. Climbing their way to almost .500, the Highlanders are 17-19 overall and 6-3 in league after sweeping UC Davis in their last conference series. Riverside sits alone in third place, two games out of the second spot.
With just two conference road wins under its belt, Santa Barbara welcomes a return to Caesar Uyesaka Stadium where it is 15-4 this year. Meanwhile, the road has been a headache for UCR. Riverside is 4-12 outside of home and has lost eight of its last nine away games. UCSB will have to take advantage of the home field given this is the second to last conference home series on the year.
Senior Jake Smigelski will take the mound in game one for the Highlanders. In his last start against UC Davis, Smigelski threw 100 pitches in five laboring innings of work to improve to 5-4 on the season. For UCSB, sophomore Justin Jacome will be called on to contain the UCR offense that ranks third in hitting.
Junior Austin Pettibone is slated to take the mound for the Gauchos in game two, followed by freshman Shane Bieber in game three. Bieber is coming off his best start of the season last weekend when he tossed eight innings and gave up just one run en route to striking out eight batters.
After leading the nation in hitting last week, senior third baseman Joey Epperson now finds himself in an unexpected hitting slump. Epperson has gone 1-12 in the past three games to lower his batting average to .418, a drop from his previous clip of .441. Nevertheless, the senior still leads the Big West in batting average and on-base percentage.
Epperson and junior first baseman Tyler Kuresa have provided the one-two punch on offense for the Gauchos. Kuresa leads the team with 33 RBIs, and his .574 slugging percentage and eight homeruns are second-best in league. He was one of the few productive bats in the lineup last weekend as he hit .400 in the series.
Santa Barbara sophomore Dillon Tate has served as the shutdown closer this year with nine saves.
Tate has been lights-out in his 21.2 innings of work. He has given up just one earned run on the season and has struck out 28 batters, well above one strikeout per inning. After last weekend’s shutout outing, Tate lowered his ERA to 0.83.
“In that closer role he just pounds the zone and every team is going to have a really tough time hitting him,” Woodward said.
First pitch for Friday’s game is scheduled for 3 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of April 24’s print edition of the Daily Nexus
Photo by Cameryn Brock