Try as it might, the UCSB baseball team couldn’t put an end to its NCAA tournament jinx this weekend in South Bend, Indiana.
Playing in their first NCAA tournament since 1996, the Gauchos found the Hoosier state unkind, going 1-2 en route to early elimination in round one of the NCAA Tournament. After dropping the first game to Florida International 17-4 on Friday, UCSB rebounded to top Wisconsin-Milwaukee 13-12 in a game played over two days because of rain delays.
But the Gauchos saw their season come to a close Sunday after an 11-10, 10-inning loss to host Notre Dame.
“After the Notre Dame game we were disappointed,” senior DH Mike Kolbach said. “But overall, the feeling was that we were proud of our season. We felt that we gave it our all and left it all out on the field. Obviously, it was a really hard way to end the season, but overall we had a good year.”
In the first game Friday, the Golden Panthers jumped all over UCSB junior starter James Garcia, who was tagged for three runs in the top of the first inning. However, the Gauchos clawed their way back, scoring a run in the second and a run in the third to make the score 3-2 in favor of FIU.
After retiring 10 out of 11 Golden Panther batters, Garcia ran into trouble in the fifth inning. Garcia gave up a leadoff double, before getting a fly out for the first out of the inning. The game went downhill from there, as the next batter reached on a fielding error from senior shortstop Jeff Bannon. A balk, three singles and another balk followed the error; FIU quickly soared for a 6-2 advantage. Garcia was then knocked out of the game on a three-run blast from FIU shortstop Mickey Torello.
But UCSB’s relievers fared no better than Garcia, as sophomore Jim Bullard, junior Matt Moran, senior Russell Wirth, and freshman Justin Angevine combined to give up the Golden Panther’s final eight runs.
“[FIU] just kept going,” Stringham said. “They just played all nine innings. They overwhelmed us in an inning or two there, but they were not any better than we were. Things just got out of control and we couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
With its back against the wall, Santa Barbara was forced to respond the next day against UW-M. The Gauchos came out like a team unwilling to let their season slip away, exploding for eight runs in the first inning and a half to go up 8-0. But UW-M quickly sliced the UCSB lead in half, scoring four runs in the second inning off of UCSB senior starter Rylie Ogle.
UCSB came right back with four runs of its own in the third to take a 12-4 lead, before Milwaukee answered with four runs in the bottom of the fourth to make the score 12-7. Junior reliever Jeremy Sugarman entered the game in the fifth inning and surrendered a single before the game was suspended due to rain.
The game resumed the following day, with Sugarman retiring UW-M on a double play and a strikeout. The Panthers then pulled within one run at 12-11 with four runs in the bottom of the sixth, before tying the game at 12 all in the eighth.
The Gauchos finally took the lead for good in the top of the ninth. With two away in the final frame, Stringham lined a shot down the right field line for his 14th dinger of the year, giving UCSB a 13-12 lead.
“It was a 1-0 or 2-1 count against their submarine pitcher,” Stringham said of his round-tripper. “It was the second time I’d seen him. The wind was blowing out in right [field] so I knew he would want to pitch me in. But he threw a pitch outside and I went with it.”
Senior closer Jamie Gonzales made the lead stand in the bottom of the inning, striking out two batters to give UCSB its first tournament win since 1986.
But UCSB had little time to enjoy the victory. The Gauchos were forced to play their second elimination game in one day due to the rain, the second game coming against the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame jumped out 2-0 in the top of the first, but UCSB answered with three runs of its own to lead 3-2 after one inning. The first inning was a sign of things to come, as both clubs would exchange hits and leads for the next eight innings, leading to a 10-10 tie after a full nine innings.
Notre Dame then jumped ahead on a solo shot from Brian Stavisky in the top of the tenth. The Gauchos’ final rally in the bottom of the inning fell short, and the game ended on a groundout from senior third baseman Dave Molidor with Schumaker on third base.
Despite the loss, UCSB enjoyed a spectacular 2001 campaign. The Gauchos recorded their first 40-win season since 1986, and staked their claim as the one of the top Santa Barbara baseball squads of all time.
“We’re proud of what we did,” freshman pitcher Matt Vasquez said. “We accomplished a lot this year and we broke a lot of team and individual records. We wanted to go further [in the tournament] but it just didn’t happen.”