If experience and past results mean anything, the UCSB baseball team’s opening series against Pepperdine, this weekend should turn out to be a good one.
The Gauchos return 19 letterwinners from last season’s team that finished with 33 wins. Not to be outdone, the Waves bring 22 players, including seven starters from their 2004 NCAA Tournament team, into the first series of the season. The two teams have split the all-time series, winning 48 games apiece.
UCSB enters its 12th season with Head Coach Bob Brontsema at the helm as a confident team, returning all of its weekend starting pitchers and three All-Big West team members from last season.
“On paper this is a very good team, but we don’t know how we’ll respond, how we’ll react or how tough we’ll be,” Brontsema said. “So that’s what this series is all about.”
Leading the Gauchos at the plate will be seniors second baseman Chris Malec and right fielder Matt Wilkerson. Both Malec and Wilkerson are four-year starters for UCSB and led the 2004 team with 54 and 56 runs batted in, respectively.
Sophomore shortstop Chris Valaika started every game last season as a freshman and brings international experience to the team after playing with the USA National Team at the World Championships last summer.
“We’re pretty confident. We’ve had a really good last couple weeks of practices,” Wilkerson said. “After playing intrasquad games the last few weeks, we’re pretty anxious to face a team in a different uniform.”
The Gaucho bats will have to figure out the Pepperdine pitching staff, led by senior Friday starter Kea Kometani. Last season, Kometani went 8-6 overall, earning a selection to the West Coast Conference 2005 preseason All-Conference Team. Closing games for the Waves is junior utility player Steve Kleen who registered eight saves and four wins in 2004, while also leading the team at the plate with a .373 average and 56 RBIs.
“This is our first test. We’ve done a lot of studying and now we will find out where we’re at,” Brontsema said. “You want to get off to a good start, it would be nice to snowball off this.”
All three weekend starters from last season returned to the mound for the Gauchos. Opening day starter junior Steve Morlock led starters with 49 strikeouts and a 5.02 earned run average last season. Saturday’s starter, junior Michael Martin, began the 2004 season on a hot streak, picking up eight straight wins for UCSB.
The bullpens will be featured in this first series as well. The Gauchos bring back their top two relievers in seniors Loren Fraser and Alex McRobbie. In 2004 McRobbie earned All-Big West Honorable Mention honors and Fraser went 6-1 with two saves out of the bullpen.
“The performance of the bullpen will be an important aspect for both teams,” Brontsema said. “For the most part, teams are looking at about five or six innings pitched from each starter, so the bullpen is going to get a lot of work this first series.”
First pitch is set for 2 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Sunday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium and 1 p.m. Saturday at Eddy D. Field Stadium in Malibu.