If you want to build a reputable baseball program, a good place to get recognized is hitting well in the six-spot. It’s also important to shine on the field.

Not to say that the 2004 success of the UCSB baseball team hinges solely on the performance of freshman shortstop Chris Valaika, but the first-year stud has already shown that he’s ready to shoulder such responsibility.

“He’s been a leader by example. He knows who he is supposed to follow, like [senior third baseman Nate] Sutton and [junior second baseman Chris] Malec, and the biggest thing he did was come in the Fall and earn the players’ respect,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “He listened and paid attention, and now that’s paying off.”
If this past weekend’s offensive display was any indication, the Gauchos have found themselves a face for the future, a leader at the plate and on defense. Valaika’s possessed bat smashed a mind-boggling .727 over the weekend, including a 5-5 tear Saturday, which was punctuated by a tide-swinging two-run homer in the fourth that prompted a 22-run outpour.

“I feel a lot more comfortable out there now,” Valaika said after Saturday’s coming out party. “The first couple of games I felt rattled, but I feel much more confident now.”

Typically, a freshman producing as much as Valaika would warrant birth certificate verification, but the Hart High School and Newhall, Calif., native has experience that any collegiate baseball player would be proud to boast.

“He came in with as good as experience and credentials as you can have. I mean, if you go overseas and wear USA letters across your chest, you’re going to be ready to go,” Brontsema said.

Not only did Valaika don the red, white and blue for Team USA, he fashioned a little gold and silver around his neck as well. While playing with the under-16 squad in the World Games in Veracruz, Mexico, Valaika and company took home the gold, and last year, he was part of the Pan Am Games silver medalists.

While Valaika’s offensive aptitude is what has garnered him attention throughout his career, it is his defense that Brontsema is banking on this year.

“We weren’t expecting him to put offensive numbers up. Anything we get from him offensively this year will be a bonus,” Brontsema said. “He is capable of going off though.”

Valaika and the Gauchos will look to continue their offensive success today against UCLA (7-3), which is currently in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Santa Barbara will look to pitch by committee tomorrow, with freshman right hander Brian Tracy starting things off for the Gauchos, who are still attempting to cement a third starter in their rotation.