The battle for the Big West title will undoubtedly heat up this weekend, as the second place UC Santa Barbara baseball team welcomes perennial power and conference leader Cal State Fullerton for a three-game series starting Friday at 2 p.m. The Titans (27-15 overall, 11-4 in the Big West) come in as the #12 ranked team in the nation, having come out on top in seven of their past nine games, including a 12-3 blowout of #8 San Diego on Tuesday.
“It’s always fun to face a nationally ranked team,” senior catcher Matt McColgan said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fan support, so we’re really excited.”
The Gauchos (29-14, 8-4 Big West) enter this weekend’s series with a lot to be excited about in addition to improved attendance at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. Santa Barbara is coming off a weekend road series against rival Cal Poly, where a grand slam off the bat of junior right fielder Brian Gump propelled the team to a decisive game three victory. More importantly, UCSB comes in with easily their best record in recent years as they continue to elevate their status amongst the Big West powerhouses.
“Playing Fullerton will be a good challenge for us coming down to the end,” sophomore ace Mike Ford said. “It’s a hard push these last four weekends, but we’ve got to stay strong and mentally tough if we want to beat the best.”
Although the Titans hold a huge 83-30 lifetime series lead over the Gauchos, a considerably less successful 2007 UCSB squad was able to split the season series with Fullerton, including wins in their last two meetings. Santa Barbara will no doubt rely on their dominant starting pitching to help anchor them in their upcoming series, starting with Ford (5-3, 2.84 ERA) on Friday, with redshirt freshman lefty Mario Hollands (5-2, 3.12) to follow on Saturday before senior southpaw Chuck Huggins (7-1, 3.38) wraps things up on Sunday. The “Big Three” have struck out 170 batters in 30 combined starts, and continue to prove themselves as one of the best weekend rotations in the conference.
“We might have an edge over them [Fullerton] with our starters,” McColgan said. “Our three guys have been unreal and give us a great chance to win almost every game.”
One area of concern for the Gauchos this season has been their bullpen, which cost senior starter Michael Martin a win against nationally ranked Pepperdine in their mid-week game on Tuesday. UCSB’s young relievers are going to need to throw some zeros on the board, as the Gauchos continue with a closer-by-committee approach.
“Those guys in the bullpen have a short-term memory and are going to be just fine,” McColgan said. “Baseball’s great in that you can take things one game at a time.”
From an offensive standpoint, the Gauchos are going to need to see more of the same from their powerful line-up that has pushed UCSB to tops in the Big West in runs scored, runs batted in and home runs. Senior left fielder Mike Zuanich has led the charge for Santa Barbara since busting out of an early season slump, currently ranking first in the Big West with 12 home runs and third with 45 RBI. The x-factor in the series could be first baseman Eric Oliver, who has started to gain his power stroke in recent weeks, launching his third home run of the season against Pepperdine.
“I think Oliver’s been consistent all year and lately has been seeing the ball real well, which should lead to some big hits for us,” McColgan said.
UCSB will need to be at the top of its game from all sides if they wish to catapult ahead of a seasoned contender in the Titans. This weekend’s series will go a long way in proving whether the Gauchos are truly one of the top teams in the nation before they head down the home stretch with Long Beach State, UC Riverside and UC Irvine still on tap.
“Fullerton is able to bring in new players to make themselves the team to beat year after year,” Ford said. “This is our chance to prove we are the team to beat.”
To tune in to this weekend’s games, tune in to KCSB 91.9 FM or listen to the games online at www.kcsb.org.