After a disappointing 2007 season in which they finished 23-31 overall, including a 9-12 conference record that put them sixth in the Big West, the Gaucho baseball team will look to bounce back in a big way as they open up their 2008 campaign at home versus Marist College at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium this weekend.
The Red Foxes, who play in the lesser-known Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, should not prove to be too difficult an opponent for a UCSB squad that plays in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. Regardless of the reputation of the MAAC, the Gauchos appear primed to finally get some in-game action.
“Regardless who we’re playing, we’re excited to see another team out there,” fifth-year senior pitcher Michael Martin said. “Just seeing another uniform out on the field will get the adrenaline pumping and we should come out strong.”
On the hill for the Gauchos in Friday’s series opener will be sophomore flamethrower Mike Ford, who began his freshman season in the bullpen before joining the starting rotation on his way to leading the team in innings pitched and strikeouts. In Saturday’s game, Head Coach Bob Brontsema will send redshirt freshman Mario Hollands to the mound in his much-anticipated debut. Hollands, named the #5 prospect in the summer Alaska Baseball League where he had more strikeouts than hits allowed, will look to throw off Marist hitters with his combination of power and off-speed pitches. Senior Chuck Huggins, who led the Gauchos with six wins last year in only eight starts, will round out the trio of starters.
Though they boast a young starting rotation, the Gauchos bullpen is easily the area where the Gauchos need to see the most improvement from last season. The loss of closer Justin Segal puts the Gauchos in an unfamiliar position, but UCSB remains optimistic that it can succeed without their finisher of the past four years.
“This first weekend will tell where everybody will earn their roles,” Martin said. “We’ve got a young bullpen, but we’re going to need a lot of young arms playing four to five times a week.”
The Gauchos currently have sophomore Clayton Edwards, who missed all of last season due to injury, penciled in as the closer, who missed all of last season due to injury. Junior outfielder Brian Gump, who has faced Edwards firsthand in practice, believes he has the pitching arsenal to get the job done.
“He’s going to make a lot of hitters uncomfortable at the plate. and when you mess with a hitter’s timing, that’s half the battle,” Gump said.
The Gaucho offense, which also suffered a huge loss with the departure of first baseman Robbie Blauer, does not look to slow down too much with the addition of new talent along with the development of returning players. Junior Eric Oliver, an Orange Coast College transfer, should see the majority of action at first base and is in line to start against Marist. Though it will prove difficult for Oliver to fill the shoes of a player who led the Gauchos in both average and runs batted in last season, he has shown great power hitting ability, the one offensive category Blauer never truly excelled in.
Joining Oliver in the heart of the lineup will be senior outfielders Chris Fox and Mike Zuanich. The El Camino College transfers were two of the most consistent hitters on the team last year, and should make an immediate impact. Third baseman Patrick Rose is set to occupy the lead-off spot for UCSB, after showing substantial improvement at the top of the lineup after he was shifted from the bottom of the lineup last season.
Sophomore second baseman Matt Valaika and junior shortstop Shane Carlson should round out the bottom of the Gauchos’ lineup, along with Gump and junior catcher Chris McMurray, though the middle infield is easily UCSB’s biggest question mark heading into the season.
“We have six middle infielders fighting for two spots this year, and I think everybody is going to get playing time, but it’s going to be interesting to see who’s starting on Friday,” Valaika said.
Friday’s game begins at 1 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday’s games at 2 p.m.