Going into Sunday’s finale against #26 Long Beach trying to avoid a three-game sweep, the UCSB baseball team (31-19 overall, 10-8 in the Big West) came together and delivered from every aspect of the game to come out on top 5-3 in support of senior southpaw Chuck Huggins, who earned his team-leading eighth win of the season. Despite having close battles with the Dirtbags (30-18 overall, 11-7 in the Big West) throughout the weekend road series, the Gauchos failed to move up the ladder in the Big West standings, still tied for third place with only six games remaining in the season.
“We played well and put ourselves in good position to win every game,” junior right fielder Brian Gump said. “We just couldn’t get enough clutch hitting, even on Sunday when we came out with the win.”
Getting any hits in succession was the major issue for the Gauchos in Friday’s series opener, as senior Dirtbag ace Andrew Liebel tossed a complete game shutout for his second-straight start, scattering five UCSB hits while striking out six. Santa Barbara sophomore right hander Mike Ford (5-4, 2.98 E.R.A.) would have a great outing in his own right, giving up only three runs in eight innings while striking out eight and walking none. Unfortunately for Ford, one of his few mistakes was to Long Beach senior outfielder and Big West home run leader Jason Corder, who blasted his 13th long ball of the season in the third with a runner on to plate the final runs of the game in a 3-0 Gaucho loss.
“I’ve been really proud of Ford’s last few performances,” Gump said. “He only made a couple mistakes in what was a great overall outing, and his stuff was phenomenal.”
The Gauchos looked to rebound on Saturday behind redshirt freshman Mario Hollands (6-2, 3.47 E.R.A.), who was lights out in his last start against first place Cal State Fullerton, going the distance in a 10-2 win. Unfortunately for UCSB, the lanky left hander would not have his normal success, giving up five earned runs in only three innings before being replaced by senior starter/reliever Michael Martin.
“I can’t say exactly what was wrong with Mario, but his secondary pitches weren’t working very well, and [Long Beach] took advantage and put a bunch of runs on the board,” Gump said.
The Santa Barbara offense would show great resilience after losing an early lead, rallying back behind a two-run triple in the fourth and a two-run double in the sixth, both off the bat of Gump (.333 average, 35 RBI) who entered the game mired in a one-for-17 slump. Senior center fielder Chris Fox (.344 average, 39 RBI) would knock in Gump to tie the game in the sixth, but the Gaucho bullpen could not hold the tie in the bottom of the seventh, with the Dirtbags scoring the final two runs of the game to take control of the series.
“We came out on Saturday facing a hard thrower, the kind of pitcher we have faired much better against this season,” Gump said. “It felt real nice finally getting some hits … me and Fox are definitely starting to see the ball better.”
The hit parade continued for the Gauchos on Sunday, busting out for 13 hits for the second-straight game including the Gauchos lone home run of the series off the bat of junior first baseman Eric Oliver. The real story on Sunday, though, was the pitching, as senior starter Chuck Huggins (8-2, 3.99 E.R.A.) bounced back after one of his rockiest starts of the season versus Fullerton before giving way to junior reliever Jason Roenicke, who locked down his second save of the season in a 5-3 triumph. Huggins gave up three runs in a gutsy effort that lasted seven and 2/3 innings to avoid the sweep on the road, with Roenicke holding the Dirtbags scoreless for the final one and 1/3 to record UCSB’s first save in over a month.
“I talked to Pat Rose after Saturday night’s game, and we talked about how we are a sleeping giant that’s going to start doing damage,” Gump said. “We really need these last two series of the season [against UC Riverside and UC Irvine], and I wouldn’t be surprised if we took them down.”