Even though their toughest competition is out of the way, there isn’t much doubt that the Gauchos’ next two Big West series are their biggest of the season. In a fourth-place tie, one game out of third place, Santa Barbara (31-17, 8-7 in the Big West) still needs a three-game victory over Pacific (18-29, 3-12 in the Big West) to close the gap in the standings and gear up for a stronger Cal Poly team the following weekend.
“Every game is the biggest game of the year,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “That’s what you love, and that’s what you play for.”
Big is a great way to describe the way the Gauchos have been attacking their opponents in the midst of their eight-game winning streak. UCSB has stormed out of the gate with multiple runs in the first innings of its last three games and has scored in double digits for four consecutive games.
Junior right fielder Matt Wilkerson has led the offensive onslaught with four home runs and 13 RBIs in his last four games, and has overtaken the team lead with 52 RBIs on the season. Wilkerson passed longtime teammate and junior second baseman Chris Malec, who has 51 RBIs of his own, and Wilkerson’s eight home runs match senior designated hitter Taylor Vogt’s team-high mark.
“I think people are pitching around Malec now, and he’s dealing with it very well,” Wilkerson said. “I’m happy to have him on base when I come up.”
Gaucho pitching hasn’t been half bad either, exemplified by the bullpen’s ridiculous 0.94 ERA during the streak. Junior right-handers Alex McRobbie and Loren Fraser, and senior southpaw Ivan Ramirez have teamed up for a scintillating 2.06 ERA, and at least one of the three has seen action in all but one of the Gauchos’ last 19 games.
The Tigers look as ferocious as declawed tabbies with their lowly .246 team batting average and bloated 6.46 ERA. University of the Pacific could only come up with one run in its three-game loss to Long Beach State last weekend, and has lost 16 of its last 19 games. Even though the Tigers own the league’s worst home record (12-12), they stunned a strong UC Riverside team at Billy Hebert Field in Stockton, Calif., with a 2-1 series win.
Tiger senior third baseman Aaron Harper leads the team in all three Triple Crown categories, with a .298 average, seven home runs and 32 RBIs. With 35 runs scored, Harper accounts for nearly one-third of UOP’s total offensive production.
Riverside, in third place with a 9-6 conference record, will host second-place Long Beach State this weekend, and UCI, the team tied with the Gauchos, will welcome league-leading Fullerton to Anteater Ballpark. The four teams will invariably beat each other up and give Santa Barbara a window of opportunity to continue its climb in the standings, but the mission for this weekend is clear and there won’t be much scoreboard-watching.
“The most help we need is to win ourselves,” Brontsema said. “We’ll definitely take some help, and we hope that there’s some on the way.”
Today’s game begins at noon with Tiger sophomore Eric Stolp (2-6, 6.14 ERA) opposing Gaucho sophomore hurler Michael Martin (9-3, 4.97 ERA). Saturday’s noontime game features UOP freshman right-hander Mike Mathews (1-8, 7.86 ERA) versus UCSB freshman right-hander Andy Graham (4-4, 4.77 ERA), and Sunday’s 11 a.m. finale will pit Gaucho sophomore Steve Morlock (6-4, 4.74 ERA) against a pitcher to be named later.