With Big West positioning on the line, the UCSB baseball team will host #16 Long Beach State this weekend with hopes of climbing into the race for the conference title.
The Gauchos (21-22 overall, 9-6 in the Big West) have crept up to third place in the conference, but they remain two and a half games out of first place, a spot currently occupied by the Dirtbags (31-14, 10-2 Big West).
UCSB is playing its best baseball of the season right now, in large part to the resurgence of a bullpen that had struggled earlier in the season. Seniors Steve Morlock and Justin Segal have given the Gauchos a potent duo to close out games. Morlock has picked up three saves since returning from an arm injury, a performance that has freed up Segal to come into the late innings with the task of stifling an opponent’s rally. So far at least, the heavy workload hasn’t caught up to the submariner who has posted a 4.06 ERA in a team-high 26 appearances.
“[Segal] doesn’t throw a lot of pitches and he’s got a pretty resilient arm, so we don’t really worry about sending him out there that much,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We’re pretty conservative in terms of nursing guy’s arms, but of any of our guys he’s probably the one guy that could go three innings a couple of times a week.”
Along with the bullpen, the Gauchos have benefited from the recent success of the bottom of the order. Freshman second baseman Matt Valaika became the first Gaucho this season to be named Big West Player of the Week after going four-for-nine with two home runs, four RBI and four runs scored in two UCSB wins over the weekend. Sophomore shortstop Shane Carlson has also stepped up his game as of late with a .458 batting average over his last seven games. As the Gauchos #9 hitter, Carlson had been hitting under .200 for most of the season, but his recent outburst has upped his batting average by 50 points.
“It’s nice to be able to get some production out of that [ninth spot],” Brontsema said. “[Carlson] is a better hitter than he’s shown this year, so it’s good that he’s kind of picked it up a little bit. It’s been a struggle for him offensively, but he’s been a tough out and he’s produced for us lately. We’re hoping that continues whether or not it results in hits.”
The starting rotation will get a shakeup this weekend, but it won’t be by design as junior lefthander Chuck Huggins will miss a couple of weeks with a sore arm. The team leader in wins will be replaced as the Friday starter by senior righty Brian Tracy (1-2, 4.01). Freshman right-hander Mike Ford (2-1, 6.13) and senior southpaw Jeff Braun (2-6, 6.36) will remain the weekend starters.
Today’s first pitch from Caesar Uyesaka Stadium will be at 2 p.m. Both Saturday and Sunday’s games will begin at 1 p.m.