Who the heck is Florida International?
That is the question the #21 UCSB baseball team has been trying to answer since it found out that FIU will be its first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Although the Gauchos have had only a few days to scout the Golden Panthers, Santa Barbara (39-15) has done its best to familiarize itself with its opposition.
“We don’t know much [about FIU], just the basic stuff,” senior designated hitter Mike Kolbach said. “They are going to throw a good left-hander against us who is 11-0 or so. They have some team speed, and are an aggressive and physical team. They have some batting practice All-Americans who don’t come out during the game.”
Sophomore outfielder Skip Schumaker added that though the Gauchos’ information is limited, the fact that neither team knows the other very well makes NCAA Regional play that much more exciting.
“We got some scouting reports [about FIU] from teams that played them during the year, but we still only know a little,” Schumaker said. “But that’s what’s fun about it. It’s just your guy against their guy, and who ever is better wins.”
Though UCSB will be making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1996, it is not exactly entering the tourney with a full head of steam. Santa Barbara is coming off of a disappointing series loss to Cal Poly, which cost the Gauchos the Big West Title, and perhaps a #1 seed in the NCAA. But despite losing to the Mustangs, UCSB remains confident heading into regional play.
“Last weekend is over and done with,” junior left fielder Jed Stringham said. “Everyone is 0-0 at this point. We have good team chemistry and we’re ready to go. We just need to put our pitching, hitting and defense together and we’ll be ready.”
As demonstrated by the selection of UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema as Big West Coach of the Year, the Gauchos have reason to be confident. Add to that nine players who were named either first or second team All-Big West, and its easy to see why Santa Barbara finished the regular season with its highest winning percentage (.722) in school history.
A huge reason for Santa Barbara’s historic season was its talented lineup. UCSB finished the season hitting .336 as a team, with eight players hitting above .300. Fittingly enough, leading the way for Santa Barbara has been its leadoff man, Skip Schumaker. The sophomore topped UCSB with a .395 batting average, and his 94 hits are just four shy of the school record. But even with his team-high average, Schumaker has not been able to match the season being had by sophomore right fielder Ryan Spilborghs. “Spilly” hit .386 during the regular season and is in the midst of a school record 33-game hitting streak. Spilborghs has caught a few breaks during his run, but attributed the streak to his approach once in the batter’s box.
“I just try to be patient at the plate,” Spilborghs said. “Hitting the ball hard between the lines is all I try to do. If the streak ends, it ends.”
The Gauchos’ hitting prowess has been made all the more effective by UCSB’s surprising pitching staff. Santa Barbara’s hurlers posted a 3.96 ERA during the regular season compared to the 7.52 ERA of the Gauchos’ opponents. Though UCSB’s entire pitching staff has been impressive, no pitcher has dominated opposing batters like junior starter James Garcia. Along with senior starter Rylie Ogle, Garcia notched 10 wins on the season, a feat last accomplished in 1991. The Gauchos’ ace also finished with a 2.68 ERA, the lowest of any starter on the team, and led the club in innings pitched (116.1), strikeouts (105) and complete games (5).
But due to Garcia’s recent run in with the police, his status for Friday’s game is still up in the air. Garcia injured his leg during the early Saturday morning altercation, which occurred after the Gauchos’ 5-3 loss to Cal Poly. Although Garcia could not be reached for comment, his teammates were able to shed some light on the situation.
“I expect him to start,” Schumaker said. “Garcia is the toughest guy on the team, both mentally and physically. Unless he can’t walk, he’ll throw on Friday.”
UCSB will need a healthy Garcia and an offense going full-throttle if it is to top FIU. The Golden Panthers finished the regular season with a 40-18 record, which earned them a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Golden Panthers’ lofty record proves that they are far from a pushover, but nevertheless, UCSB appears ready to handle whatever FIU will bring to the diamond.
“[Garcia] is scheduled to go [on Friday],” sophomore starter Jim Bullard said. “He threw some in the bullpen on Tuesday and felt fine. He’s going, we’re winning, that’s all there is to it.”