In the long afternoon shadows of a Gaucho batting practice, a show is being put on.
A stout figure steps up to the plate and delivers a pulverizing swing that sends the baseball screaming over the horizon. He swaggers away and lets a taller batter step into the box. A quick flash of the bat followed by a resounding crack rockets the first pitch he sees into oblivion.
“That’s the way it is with Matt,” Chris Malec said, “He always seems to make my home runs look small.”
Malec, UCSB’s star freshman second baseman, was, of course, talking about his roommate, freshman left fielder Matt Wilkerson.
Together, this talented tandem has combined for more hits than a small army of stoners. They’ve wrought pandemonium on other team’s pitching while providing spectacular defense for their own. They’ve been a two-man wrecking crew and they have been doing it for the last five years.
“We met entering summer camp freshman year of high school,” Malec said. “Ever since then we’ve been working out and hanging out together.”
Malec and Wilkerson played on the same teams for all four years of high school, growing, learning, and developing as a duo. As the only sophomores to play on their varsity squad for Santa Margarita High School, the two bonded in their dedication to the sport, finding each other to be both greatest comrade and toughest competitor.
“We’re almost like brothers,” Wilkerson said. “We fight like brothers and we compete like brothers.”
Thanks to what both fondly deem their “friendly competition,” the two sluggers have been the Bash Brothers of Santa Barbara, breaking almost as many records as they have opposing pitcher’s egos.
Wilkerson has done the impossible this year, shattering a 10-year-old Big West record for freshman home runs with 16, a number that has him tied for the Big West lead among all players and threatening to bust the UCSB all-time season record of 17.
“He has the type of power that would lead you to believe that if anybody could do it, he can,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “Here’s a kid that’s walked in here and dropped 16 homeruns like nothing. And he’s not even hitting up to his full potential. He has that kind of power.”
“I feel he can hit a home run at any time,” Malec said. “In batting practice, he puts on a show and he puts on a bigger show during the game. I wish I could have that power.”
Wilkerson was highly touted out of high school because of his athletic 6’4” 195 pound frame and because he was drafted in the 30th round by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Malec however, has been earning his praise with superb all-around play that has made him indispensable to the Gauchos.
The 5′ 11,” 185 pound business-economics major has been a one-man offensive machine this year. Malec started every game this season and leads UCSB in hits (70), doubles (15), and RBIs (57, third in the Big West and second all-time for freshman).
“Chris has been very good since his first day here,” Brontsema said. “He’s been consistent and a very solid player and he does everything a coach would like. He’s been real willing to make changes.”
Although the polished player once hit a home run from both sides of the plate in a high school game and has been a model of consistent excellence his entire baseball career, he is still surprised with his success this year.
“As a freshman, just to be able to come in here and contribute – it’s exceeding so much more than I thought I could do,” Malec said.
The precocious duo have been silver lining on a mostly cloudy year, providing a strong offensive force that bodes well for Santa Barbara’s future.
“Their production is critical to any success we’ve had,” Brontsema said. “These guys could put up some phenomenal numbers during their stay at UCSB.”
As good as they’ve been, Wilkerson and Malec know they have potential and that this year is just the beginning. To realize this potential, each rely on one another to keep the competitive spark burning.
“You name it, we’d compete at it,” Malec said. “We kept competing and kept getting better. [Wilkerson] would always hit them farther, but I always seemed to get more hits – somehow.”
“Competition keeps us both fired up to keep doing better,” Wilkerson. said “There’s still a lot of room for improvement, we both agree on that. Very rarely do we talk about the thing we have done. We talk about the things we want to do.”
Even though the two are presently living out a fantasy, Malec and Wilkerson have not stopped dreaming about the future.
“I can see us playing in the National Championship game as seniors,” Malec said. “And then going on to play professional ball.”
This is a dream that they know they can help each other realize.
After all, what are friends for?