After struggling through the early going of the season, the UCSB baseball team seems to have found its groove.
The Gauchos (12-13 overall) have won three straight and three of their last four series after dropping their first three series of the year. One of those series victories was against fellow Big West foe Cal Poly in nonconference action.
“Beating a team of the caliber of Cal Poly is definitely a step in the right direction,” junior pitcher Brian Tracy said. “It shows that we are capable of playing with anyone.”
The Gauchos were one call from sweeping their first series of the year against Hawaii Hilo (10-23). With the score knotted at four in the bottom of the 10th inning, junior shortstop Chris Valaika’s potentially inning-ending throw pulled senior first baseman Chris Webber off the bag, allowing the winning run to come home, in a 5-4 loss in extra-innings.
“The throw was right to him but they claimed he came off the bag,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We thought we were out of the inning and it’s disappointing to lose like that.”
UCSB fired back Friday, taking both games of a doubleheader. Senior center fielder Matt Emerick led the way for the Gauchos with four hits in four trips to the plate and knocked in four runs in the first game. Junior first basemen Robbie Blauer was also perfect in three trips to the plate and scored four runs, as Santa Barbara put the Vulcans away with a five-run seventh to take the game 8-4.
“We’ve been in just about every game we’ve played,” Brontsema said. “At some point you need to find a way to win. It was nice to do it against a very good Cal Poly team and then to back it up against a good TCU team.”
Junior starting pitcher Jeff Braun held Hawaii Hilo to one run on seven hits through eight innings while striking out seven and walking none in game two. The Gaucho bats provided more than enough offense, belting out 12 runs on 10 hits. Valaika turned in a three-hit performance and knocked in four runs while scoring twice.
“I thought pitch for pitch it was the best outing we’ve had all year,” Brontsema said. “He was outstanding. He threw three pitches for strikes and was impressive, especially considering it was his first outing of the year.”
The Santa Barbara offense was alive and well in the series finale as the Gauchos plated a season-high 22 runs en route to a 22-6 victory that pushed their record above the .500 mark for the first time since Feb. 11. Freshman third basemen Shane Carlson turned in a five hit performance while Emerick and junior left fielder Brian Lee each had four runs batted in.
“We play in a very tough conference so everything helps,” Tracy said. “We have a tough game against USC but are heading in the right direction.”
Santa Barbara has one final tune up before the start of Big West play, traveling to USC on Tuesday. The Trojans beat UCSB in a 16-11 slugfest in mid-February. The Gauchos kick off the conference season when they host UC Riverside for a three-game series this weekend.