It started as a bang, dropped to a crackle, then fell to a hum before rebounding with a spark. So went the 2003 UCSB baseball season.
The Gauchos concluded their season last Sunday with an impressive 9-5 victory over Cal Poly to haul their final season record to 25-28 overall and 8-13 in Big West play.
Santa Barbara improved on its 2002 record of 22-33, but UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema would have liked to see more improvement.
“I don’t think you can be very satisfied unless you make a playoff,” Brontsema said. “I certainly hoped we would have had a better run at it.”
The Gauchos finished in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference.
UCSB began its season on Jan. 31 with an encouraging 2-1 victory over Tony Gwynn’s San Diego State squad. But the Gauchos dropped seven of their next eight games and found themselves with an unimpressive 2-7 mark.
Santa Barbara then turned it around and won 16 of its next 22 contests and entered conference play on April 4 with a four-game winning streak.
Then the Gauchos ran into a roadblock. In three consecutive weekends, UCSB faced nationally ranked UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. They lost eight of those nine games and found themselves with an uninspired 2-10 conference record.
“I thought some people didn’t play as well as they expected to do,” senior southpaw Sean Thompson said. “But we didn’t quit; nobody ever gave up on the season.”
Mired in last place with just nine conference games remaining, the Gauchos knew that they needed someone to pick them up.
That’s when junior right-hander Matt Vasquez stepped into his expected role as staff ace and dealt two consecutive dominating performances. Against Cal State Northridge on May 2, Vasquez tossed a complete game, allowing just one run while striking out 10. A week later, against Pacific, he threw another impressive 7.2 innings in picking up his fourth win of the season.
“He’s going to get drafted,” Brontsema said of Vasquez. “And I foresee that he’s going to sign.”
In that same span, junior catcher Chad Ziemendorf went on an absolute offensive tear, knocking four home runs in as many games while driving in nine RBI. He finished as the team leader in dingers with six.
UCSB finished the season with six wins in its last 10 games before honoring seniors Thompson, Nic Rodriguez, shortstop Josh Fulton, first baseman Josh McCanne and left fielder Blair Havens on Senior Day last Sunday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
On Tuesday, the Big West released its all-conference team, and Rodriguez was the lone Gaucho to be named. He was selected second-team All-Big West as a designated hitter.
“Nic Rodriguez was the biggest surprise,” Brontsema said. “He saw limited action in 2002 and then came out this year as our leading hitter.”
He also noted the individual performances of junior third baseman Nate Sutton, Fulton and freshman closer Steve Morlock.
“I think this team was close to the top with regards to their chemistry,” Brontsema said. “That was a crucial factor – when we were struggling we didn’t roll over and die.”