This weekend, the UCSB baseball team hopes to play the role of the phoenix, rising from the ashes of a recent torching to prey upon UC Irvine and soar up the ranks of the Big West.
A challenge awaits the Gauchos, however, starting Friday night in Irvine. In order for Santa Barbara to resurrect itself, the squad must face another team that has risen from the dead.
Irvine’s baseball program was reinstated this season after a 10-year hiatus. Despite their relative youth, the Anteaters (19-5) are playing like a veteran ball club thanks to a strong pitching corps and a virtually impervious defense that ranks first in the Big West.
“They’ve been very good,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “A lot better than expected. They have great defense, and that’s how they’ve been winning.”
Irvine is 2-1 in Big West play and boasts a team ERA of 3.65, which is nearly half that of Santa Barbara’s conference-worst mark of 6.35.
“It’s a pretty young team,” Brontsema said. “But they got some real good players to come in there.”
Meanwhile, the Gauchos (14-17) are coming off a series loss to Cal State Northridge and stumbling into conference play with a 1-2 record. Right now, UCSB is a hapless team, hampered by injuries to regular starting pitchers senior James Garcia and junior James Dayley, and relief pitcher junior Jared Edrosolan. UCSB has had consistent trouble putting nine full innings together and has lacked stamina to get on a winning track.
“We haven’t been consistent,” junior first baseman Josh McCanne said. “I think we can pull it together. We can beat anybody if we’re playing well as a team.”
Hanging close to opposing teams for most of the game, only to disintegrate late in the contest and lose frustratingly, Santa Barbara has been its own greatest foe lately.
“Big innings have beaten us,” Brontsema said.
With their recent struggles put aside, the Gauchos are optimistic about their prospects and chance of a victory this weekend.
“We’re going to do well this weekend,” sophomore right fielder Ryan Spilborghs said.
The Gauchos plan to employ an arsenal of weapons against UCI. Armed by the home run tandem of freshman designated hitter Matt Wilkerson (10 HR, third in Big West) and freshman infielder Chris Malec (6 HR, 38 RBI), UCSB will also rely on junior infielder Blair Havens (.396 BA), and the veteran All-American Spilborghs (.390 BA, 35 runs, 37 RBI).
“If they have one chink in the armor, it’s that they haven’t been that offensive,” Brontsema said. “I would expect it to be a low-scoring series. On paper it plays out that way, but who knows?”