It is do or die for the UC Santa Barbara baseball team (30-17 overall, 9-6 in the Big West) this weekend, as they travel south to face Long Beach State (28-17 overall, 9-6 Big West) in a must-win series as they try to stay in the running for the conference title and gain recognition for NCAA regional selections. Tied for third in the Big West with UC Davis and Long Beach, the Gauchos will look to use this weekend’s series to gain ground on first place Fullerton, but will face a tough test going against a #26-ranked 49er team that has won nine of their last 12 games.
“We need to show up offensively and be as aggressive as we can,” junior designated hitter Jon DeAlba said. “The middle of the lineup has been hitting the ball really well lately, but the rest of us are going to have to step it up.”
The UCSB bats have had little trouble against opposing pitchers this season, leading the conference in runs scored, averaging over seven a game. However, in the Gauchos recent slide – losing four of their last five – the top and bottom of the lineup have had difficulty both getting on base and knocking in teammates with runners in scoring position.
“We’ve got to pay more attention to detail and just execute,” junior right fielder Brian Gump said. “We’ve had chances to score and haven’t come up with the big hit, but this weekend I think we are going to blow up.”
Getting the offense on track this weekend should be a good challenge for Santa Barbara, as they are going up against a trio of talented right handers, starting with senior 49er ace Andrew Liebel (6-2, 1.87 ERA) on Friday. Liebel, a bullpen specialist-turned-starter, has pitched into the seventh inning each of his 17 career starts, and is coming off his first career complete game shutout.
“Long Beach has a really strong pitching staff, so it’s going to be big for us to manufacture some runs, get deep into their bullpen,” DeAlba said.
UCSB will counter with an ace of their own with sophomore flamethrower and Friday starter Mike Ford (5-3, 2.93 ERA), who was brilliant in his last start against Fullerton, limiting the Titan offense to three runs through seven innings. Long Beach is probably most concerned with redshirt freshman and Saturday starter Mario Hollands (6-2, 2.97 ERA), who had his first career shutout against a dangerous Fullerton lineup last weekend.
“I don’t know how his arm feels after throwing all those pitches, but Mario should be ready for anything after doing what he did against Fullerton,” DeAlba said. “I think he’s definitely capable of going all the way again.”
For a handful of Gauchos, the upcoming road series will be a welcome home, as several position players hailing from the Long Beach area will look to put on an offensive showcase for family and friends. For Gump (.338 average, 45 runs) and senior center fielder Chris Fox (.346 average, 38 runs), a little home cooking might be the recipe to break out of their recent struggles.
“It’s a big game for myself, Fox, Zoo [senior left fielder Mike Zuanich] and Oliver [junior first baseman Eric Oliver],” Gump said. “The middle guys have been on fire, but I need to get back to basics and get things going at the top.”
Even if the offense and starting pitching are able to uphold their end of the bargain, the Gaucho bullpen will need to avoid any further late-inning meltdowns if they wish to come out of Long Beach with a series win under their belt. Ninth inning relief has given up Santa Barbara leads in their last three losses, including two disappointing finishes against #14 Pepperdine. Fortunately for the Gauchos, senior starter/reliever Michael Martin will be available to come in to close multiple games if necessary, not having started his customary mid-week game on Wednesday.
“I think he’s going to be nice and fresh, and we are looking forward to having him as an option out of the bullpen,” Gump said. “If we get back to what we’ve been doing all season long, we should have a good chance taking two out of three if not more.”