A trip to Caesar Uyesaka Stadium for UCSB baseball doesn’t often leave fans star-struck. Although the Gauchos cannot tout a Big West Conference Pitcher of the Week or a National Player of the Year award candidate, #23 USC will bring both to Santa Barbara today.
The storied tradition that is Trojan baseball could leave both the fans and the Gauchos stunned. After winning 12 of its last 15 games and sweeping Pac-10 rival UCLA last weekend, USC (21-9, 6-3 in the Pac-10) re-entered both of the top-25 polls this week, following two weeks out of the rankings.
In contrast, the Gauchos (16-17, 1-2 in the Big West) fell victim to superior pitching last weekend at Davis, being swept for the third time this season. Even more disconcerting than the sweep was the fact that UCSB scored just one run in three games against the Aggies.
The Trojans boast a number of weapons this season, including junior catcher Jeff Clement, who has been nominated for the Johnny Bench Award, an honor doled out every year to the best collegiate catcher in the nation. Clement leads the team with his .356 batting average and .511 on-base percentage. Junior third baseman Billy Hart and sophomore left fielder Cyle Hankerd are both hitting .333 and have combined for 35 runs and 36 RBI this year.
“[Clement is] a very special player; he’s got big-league power and he’s their best player,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We’ve only had to face him once, and we’ve done OK, but he’s just a very dangerous guy.”
On the other side of the ball, in 30 starts this season Clement has allowed just three passed balls and has thrown out more than half of the base runners attempting a stolen base against him. USC is expected to throw freshman right-hander Anthony Encinas today. Encinas is 2-1 in six appearances with a 3.14 ERA.
To counter, the Gauchos will start senior right-hander Loren Fraser. In 20 appearances, mostly from the bullpen, Fraser has accumulated a team-leading 2.56 ERA and a 2-2 record. Santa Barbara will also look to the bullpen to eat up innings against the Trojans.
Despite the lack of run production of late, UCSB seniors shortstop Chris Malec and right fielder Matt Wilkerson lead the squad offensively with 28 runs and 31 RBI, respectively.
“[USC is] a good team in the top 25 coming off of a sweep,” Brontsema said. “We’re going to have to play better baseball. We need to pitch and play defense, and we really need to just score some runs.”
The Gauchos will meet up with USC again next Tuesday in Los Angeles. First pitch is scheduled for today at 2 p.m.