Baseball typically ages like fine wine. There are career minor leaguers, 26-year-old rookies and younger players who are in an everlasting stage of development. Coaches drool over young talent that is refined, disciplined and play with the poise of a savvy vet.
Guys like Chris Valaika.
As a true freshman last year, Valaika helped lead the UCSB baseball team to one of the most prolific offenses in the nation with a robust .347 batting average and gave fans a glimpse of the face of the Gaucho future. The blue-chip prospect was also counted on to carry a promising Santa Barbara squad this year back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. The only problem, however, is that Valaika’s season came to an abrupt end in early March with a knee injury. And as if being deprived of being able to suit up and take the field with his teammates was enough, his injury occurred just days after the deadline for red-shirt candidates.
Valaika’s injury has been symbolic of this season for the Gauchos: So much potential at the outset and a resounding, “Well, there’s always next year,” at the finish. The first time I met Valaika and a few of my other baseball-playing neighbors, there was a certain confident demeanor about them. They told me they were going to be legit this year and I believed every word of it.
The first line of the team media guide reads, “With a healthy and talented core of returning veteran players and a deep and experienced pitching staff, look for the 2005 UC Santa Barbara baseball team to turn some heads and compete for a Big West Championship.”
And then Valaika went down with a knee injury.
And then they lost senior captain and stud second baseman Chris Malec for significant time with a diagnosis of testicular cancer.
And then junior infielder Travis LeBouf went down with an ankle injury.
And then freshman infielder Scott Cohen went down with a hamstring injury, pulling up lame at second base following his first collegiate base hit.
Junior infielder A.J Knox hurt his hamstring in the fall and never even donned a uniform this season.
A comedy of errors – sans the humor.
In the ultra-competitive Big West, it would be almost unfathomable to expect that the Gauchos would emerge at the top of the mountain with such an unparalleled slew of injuries.
But after the final homestand of a considerably disappointing season, considering their prospects before it began, one cannot undermine the great things that did occur this season on the diamond with stories of what could have been.
Malec helped all of us put sports back into perspective after learning of his diagnosis of testicular cancer. He inspired fans by slugging a grand slam in his first start following his surgery and managed to make it onto the field for his final homestand, despite undergoing his second wave of chemotherapy only a day before.
Freshman infielder Alden Carrithers gave fans a glimpse of the future by filling the lead off spot admirably, leading the team in batting average and boasting an impressive .404 on-base percentage.
Senior pitcher Alex McRobbie has been a staple in the Gaucho bullpen for four years and set the school record for saves in a season and a career this year.
Senior outfielder Matt Wilkerson continued to use Caesar Uyesaka Stadium as a launching pad to bolster his resume as a legitimate draft prospect. He is currently tied for the school record for career home runs with 41. He will try to shatter the record next weekend against cellar-dweller Northridge.
Here’s hoping they give him something to hit.
In the face of a seemingly disappointing, injury-riddled season, the individuals accomplished feats that did not disappoint.
And those were just a few.
Sean Swaby is the Daily Nexus sports editor.