UCSB baseball fans got an unexpected surprise this weekend, and it wasn’t just the Gauchos’ 2-1 series win over #10 Long Beach.
Senior shortstop Chris Malec returned to the team Friday, 22 days after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer and just one week after completing his first cycle of chemotherapy.
Entering the game to widespread applause in the seventh inning of Friday’s 8-6 win over the Dirtbags, Malec immediately made an impact, recording his first defensive assist since Santa Barbara’s April 13 win over USC.
“[Chris] was and is a huge inspiration to us. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we played as well was we did,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “His presence was really an inspiration for everyone.”
Surpassing his goal to return to the team for its last home series of the season against Irvine on May 20-22, Malec returned as a starter for Saturday and Sunday’s games against Long Beach.
After grounding into a double play in his only at bat Friday, Malec more than made up for it in the Gauchos’ 7-6 win Saturday. With the bases loaded and one out in the first inning, Malec blasted the 0-1 pitch from Long Beach junior starter Marco Estrada over the wall in right center for his fifth four-bagger and the first Gaucho grand slam of the season.
“It felt great to be out here. Just being able to play has given me a lot of energy. I wanted to play at home, so to come back and play at home against Long Beach makes it special,” Malec said. “Against Long Beach, you have to bring your A game. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot coming back, so hitting the grand slam was really a special moment. It was kind of surreal.”
Malec finished the series 2-7 at the plate with one run scored and four RBI. Defensively, Malec’s return allowed the infielders to return to their more natural positions, resulting in the first error-free weekend for UCSB since its opening series against Pepperdine.
“He plays a pretty important role to our team, and I think it showed in our play,” Brontsema said. “We pitched very well, but putting our guys back in their regular positions made a big difference.”
Malec’s future this season is still uncertain. He will have this week off from treatment before undergoing his second cycle of chemotherapy May 16-20. The Gauchos return to action next weekend at Riverside before hosting Irvine in their final homestand of the season.
“Basically, he’s just a day-to-day case,” Brontsema said. “I would assume that next weekend he’ll be able to go. The following weekend we’ll have to wait and see how he’s feeling.”