If you did not believe in them before, it is about time you jumped on the bandwagon.
Ever since the UCSB baseball team (18-7 overall, 3-0 in the Big West) dropped a road series to Houston University back in early March, the Gauchos have been on an absolute tear, winning 10 of 12 games, including a current six-game win streak that was capped off by a sweep of Cal State Northridge (10-13 overall, 0-3 in the Big West) this past weekend in the first conference action of the season. A combination of strong starting pitching and timely hitting up and down the batting order has placed UCSB into the upper echelon of Big West baseball, boasting a win-loss record that trails only perennial powers UC Irvine and Long Beach State in the overall standings.
“We have proved that we are a legitimate Big West team,” junior outfielder Brian Gump said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in ourselves, and are looking forward to playing against Irvine, Long Beach, and Fullerton to show the world what we’re about.”
Before the Gauchos could think ahead to their conference games against the Big West, UCSB had to focus on winning the remaining games on its nonconference schedule. After a road loss to Cal Poly back on Mar. 11, Santa Barbara bounced back with an overpowering four-game sweep of Southern Utah at home.
“All our guys one through nine [in the batting order] were getting hits, and showed how dominant our offense can be,” sophomore shortstop Matt Valaika said.
After their success against Southern Utah, the Gauchos were momentarily slowed down by a red hot Saint Mary’s squad in their series opener. A 9-3 loss marked the end of junior second baseman Shane Carlson’s 18-game hit streak, and proved that even sophomore ace Mike Ford (3-2, 2.58 ERA) could have an off day.
“It was mostly some control issues, but [Ford] is still growing as a pitcher,” Gump said. “He sets really high standards for himself, and is working to meet them every time he goes out there.”
After allowing their first game against the Gaels to fall into the loss column, UCSB rebounded with back-to-back victories in a doubleheader to claim the series. The offense led the way in an 11-4 win in game two, while pitching set the tone in the series finale with freshman starter Mario Hollands (3-1, 2.97 ERA) tossing six innings of shutout ball in a 6-0 victory
Santa Barbara kept its momentum going with a mid-week win only days after taking down Saint Mary’s, rolling through neighboring Westmont in what looked to be another 6-0 shutout before a rocky ninth inning had the final score finish at 6-3 in favor of the Gauchos.
“A big difference between this year’s team and last year’s is that we don’t drop games to teams that we should be beating,” Gump said. “We’ve gotten much better at staying focused and building on our wins one game at a time.”
UCSB certainly built on their final nonconference wins, coming out strong from a hitting and pitching perspective in its Big West opener versus Northridge on Friday at Ceasar Uyesaka Stadium. Three-hit games by Gump, junior first baseman Eric Oliver and junior outfielder John DeAlba backed a solid 6 1/3 innings out of Ford, leading the Gauchos to a convincing 9-5 win.
The Gauchos second win of the series would come in dramatic fashion, as senior outfielder Chris Fox knocked in the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to give UCSB an 8-7 win.
In the series finale, senior lefty Chuck Huggins (5-1, 3.53 ERA) closed out Northridge in what might have been his best start of the season, giving up only one run over seven innings while striking out a career high 11 batters to complete the sweep in a 10-6 victory. The win moved the Gauchos’ home record to an impressive 14-1 mark.
Gump and Fox, the number one and two hitters in the Santa Barbara lineup, batted 13 for 26 (.500) in the series with seven runs and seven RBI to spark the Gaucho offense. Together, the two speedsters have 29 stolen bases on the season, and have effectively set the table for a heart of the lineup whose bats have been coming alive in recent weeks.
“Both of those guys are amazingly fast and can hit the crap out of the ball,” Valaika said. “Anytime either of them comes to the plate, we know we’re going to get runners in scoring position.”