An organization can stack a team with talent as much as they want to, but ultimately, it’s up to the players on the field to rack up wins and losses. UCSB baseball has had enough talent to post winning seasons every year in recent history, but a number of factors have kept it from fulfilling the expectations that come when hot stoves are turned off and the Super Bowl has come and gone.
“Any time you win, it’s because you have talent, and the guys who have talent have good years,” Gaucho baseball Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We have a very similar team to last year’s, but last year we had injuries and players didn’t have the kind of years that we anticipated. That’s the difference.”
It would be easy to look at the roster and write off this year’s club to finish in the second division because the skill level is so close to that of last season’s team. The statistics will tell of a lackluster 25-28 finish in 2003, including the bloated 5.43 ERA and the middling .272 batting average that got them there. The cold, hard numbers won’t speak of the injuries to important Gaucho juniors Chris Malec and Matt Wilkerson, costing them the strength and precision necessary to put up the kind of stats that they did in 2002. Malec saw his average drop by .100 after blowing out his knee on a home run swing, and Wilkerson’s power and run production slipped mightily from his first-year numbers while he added to his Gaucho season record for strikeouts.
Steps have been taken in the right direction, though, to get these two and other Gauchos toward having the kinds of seasons that UCSB needs to compete well. Wilkerson had a surgery over the summer after playing all of 2003 hurt, and is slated to take his post in right field in the second week of the season. Malec, a second baseman, played in college baseball’s premier summer conference, the Cape Cod League, and made the all-star team in addition to leading all players in hitting for most of the summer.
“Malec had a frustrating season, playing on a bad knee, and he got a little down,” Brontsema said. “He went back [East], tore it up and got his confidence back, so I anticipate him coming back and having an outstanding year because he’s an outstanding player.”
Patient senior Nate Sutton will start for his third year at third base and will probably bat second again to capitalize on his skill at moving runners over and drawing walks. If senior Taylor Vogt isn’t the team’s starting catcher, he will be the designated hitter, and sophomore Bill Rowe turned enough heads with a .285 average as a freshman to earn the starting nod at first base. Senior Brian Adams and sophomore Matt Emerick both have a strong chance to roam the outfield, and Adams’ defensive capabilities make him a prime candidate for the job.
With Sutton, Vogt, Rowe, Adams and Emerick, the Gauchos are stacked with left-handed hitting, but have enough righties on the bench to run a competent platoon system when they face one of the many able southpaws in the Big West. Freshman shortstop prospect Chris Valaika has impressed the coaching staff with his mature play, junior Matt Stevens can and has played almost every position, and junior speedster Gabe Mann could see time if the Gauchos need a right-handed stick.
UCSB lost two 100-inning hurlers to the major leagues at the end of last season and doesn’t have any pitchers that it can count on to be the one-staff workhorse because of a lack of extensive Division I experience. Instead, it has several that can contribute smaller roles and get the job done. Senior James Dayley looks to be the staff ace after a recovery from injury and a grand total of one inning pitched in 2003. Junior transfer Nate Holguin toughed out a blister on his middle finger and still managed to have a fantastic fall. Sophomore Steve Morlock will vie for a starting spot, a change from his closer role last season.
“We probably have more horses in the stable than we’ve had in a long time,” Brontsema said. “We have guys who pitched last year who are low on the totem pole this year, and a lot of that will revolve around how Dayley responds.”
Freshmen Andy Graham and Brian Tracy will join the pitching staff after redshirting last year, and along with Morlock and sophomore Michael Martin, they have endured rigorous weight training to fill out their tall frames and throw the ball harder. Senior Aaron Jones, a transfer from Texas Tech, will be the closer with a nasty sinking fastball to complement his cutter, slider and changeup thrown from different angles. Senior lefty Ivan Ramirez will handle a lot of the middle innings with his baseball savvy.
“We’re going to go into the weekends trying to win those series,” UCSB Pitching Coach Dan Ricabal said. “We’re going to use all of our guns trying to do it.”
Potential doesn’t deserve as much respect from opponents as results do, and that is made apparent by the Gauchos’ projected sixth-place finish in the perennially tough Big West. They do, however, have Riverside and Fullerton, two of the league’s toughest teams, at home this season, and their marquee players are ready and rested for their season opener at San Diego State on Feb. 6.
“Who’s going to fold to challenge, and who’s going to step up to it?” Brontsema asked. “Hopefully, we put the guys out there that will step up to challenges.”