Santa Barbara (24-17, 2-7 in the Big West) may have to play in the dark tonight at Blair Field, because #4 Long Beach State (30-9, 9-0 in the Big West) will pitch the lights out.
The Gauchos face the top pitching team in the conference in a three-game set beginning tonight at 6:30 against 49er junior Jered Weaver, the best pitcher in the country and the incumbent for National Player of the Year.
Weaver sits at an immaculate 12-0 in 12 starts with a mind-boggling 1.13 ERA, both national highs for starting pitchers. Only four other pitchers in the league have half as many strikeouts as Weaver, unmatchable at 132. Opponents hit an anemic .155 off the 6’7” right-hander. Twice this season, against USC and BYU, Weaver has fanned the first 10 hitters he has faced.
There are other hurlers on the staff, of course, and they have teamed up with Weaver for a 2.34 team ERA, also a top score in the country. Long Beach has issued just 72 walks all season; only three other conference schools have allowed less than half that total.
“The guys are all excited about the challenge of facing Weaver, but [Long Beach] is not just Weaver,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “He doesn’t walk anybody; none of their pitchers do. They have phenomenal pitching numbers and Weaver happens to lead a great staff.”
Add to that the 49ers’ stingy defense, second in the league only to UCSB, along with a 16-1 home record, and the difficulty of winning this series becomes evident.
Long Beach’s offense has gotten the job done, despite scoring the third-fewest amount of runs in the conference, and it features the reigning Big West Player of the Week, junior Jason Vargas. Vargas hit .700 last weekend with five runs scored and five RBIs, and he pitched into the seventh inning of the 49ers’ sweep-clinching 4-1 win over Cal Poly on April 25.
“They’ve got a legitimate shot at the national championship,” Brontsema said. “But if we lose two more games, we’re out of the playoff picture completely.”
The Gauchos took a 14-7 thriller from Fullerton in game three to save what could have easily been a sweep in last weekend’s series loss to the Titans. The team is optimistic and happy to meet the challenge that the 49ers present.
“We’re taking it one series at a time,” senior relief pitcher Ivan Ramirez said. “We’re not changing anything, we’re going to do the same thing we’ve done all year and see how it turns out.”
UCSB’s offense found its stroke in the final game of the Fullerton series, collecting 20 hits and upping the team batting average to .308. Freshman shortstop Chris Valaika is continuing to put together a fine season, hitting .331 with 11 doubles, seven home runs and 31 RBIs in his inaugural campaign.
Sophomore right-hander Michael Martin (8-3, 4.79 ERA) will climb the hill Friday against Weaver, and the Gauchos will send freshman Andy Graham (2-4, 4.91 ERA) to pitch while the 49ers will counter with sophomore Cesar Ramos (8-2, 2.05 ERA) Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. Sunday’s game will feature Gaucho sophomore Steve Morlock (6-4, 4.88) against Vargas (6-5, 3.42), who will toss the first pitch at 1 p.m.