The final out made by UC Santa Barbara baseball in 2008 truly embodied its successful yet ultimately unsatisfying season. Down 2-0 with a runner on in the top of the ninth inning, junior catcher Chris McMurray would turn on a pitch from dominant UC Irvine closer Eric Pettis, launching a deep shot to left-center that would fall just shy of a home run. The warning track flyout gave the Anteaters (38-16 overall, 14-10 in the Big West) two out of three games in the weekend series, wiping away the Gauchos’ playoff hopes that were very much alive after taking the series opener from the ninth-ranked team in the nation.
“We just didn’t execute,” redshirt freshman starter Mario Hollands said. “We had runners in scoring position a lot, but it was just one of those days where we couldn’t produce in key situations.”
Going into Sunday’s series-deciding regular-season finale, UCSB looked primed to upset a highly touted Irvine team that made it all the way to the Final Four in last year’s College World Series. Senior left-hander Chuck Huggins (8-3, 4.40 ERA) was masterful in his final start in a Santa Barbara uniform, painting the corners with every pitch in his arsenal to limit UCI to only one run through seven innings.
“He [Huggins] was slicing and dicing and probably had one of his best starts of the year considering that we were playing such a highly ranked team,” Hollands said. “I can’t say how much it meant to the team to keep us in the game like that.”
Unfortunately for the Gauchos, a usually reliable offensive attack that averaged over seven runs a game this season could not produce with runners on base against one of the nation’s best pitching staffs, totaling nine hits in only their third shutout of the season. The most noteworthy missed opportunity came in the eighth inning, when the heart of the UCSB order – senior center fielder Chris Fox, junior first baseman Eric Oliver and senior left fielder Mike Zuanich – would strike out in order with runners on the corners and no outs to end the rally.
“Our pitching was awesome, but we couldn’t produce from the offensive side,” Fox said. “As a team we felt the whole time we were going to have a big inning and come back, but it never came together.”
The offense had no trouble living up to their reputation in Friday’s series opener, plating three runs in both the seventh and eighth innings in support of senior right-hander Michael Martin, who came within one out of recording his first complete game of the season in a 6-2 victory.
Junior shortstop Shane Carlson came through in both late-game frames, leading off the seventh with a double before blasting an RBI triple in the eighth. McMurray would also chip in with a two-run shot in the seventh, good for his eighth home run of the year. Taking nothing away from the potent Gaucho offense, the story of the game was without question the performance of Martin, who limited Irvine to two runs in his longest outing of the season. The crafty six-year veteran was just what the doctor ordered with sophomore ace and regular Friday starter Mike Ford sidelined due to illness.
“Mike [Martin] has been on fire the last half of the year, getting stronger every time he goes out there,” Hollands said. “I think his start on Friday was his best I’ve seen him pitch, shutting down Irvine on the road against [All American Scott] Gorgen, a guy that could easily be player of the year.”
In a Saturday afternoon slugfest, a shaky Gaucho bullpen that has struggled all season would once again play a large role in Santa Barbara’s demise, allowing nine runs in relief of a struggling Hollands to give the team little chance to mount a comeback before ultimately falling 14-7. After going down 8-2 in what was quickly becoming a blowout, the Gauchos came roaring back with a four-run sixth inning, but would be one-upped by an Anteater offense that responded with six runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning.
“Yesterday our bullpen didn’t come out with the right mindset, and the Irvine hitters looked like they had our pitches and put some good swings on the ball,” Fox said.
After Sunday’s disappointing rubber match, UCSB finishes the season with a resurgent 35-21 overall record, including a 14-10 conference record that puts them in a three-way tie for third in the Big West. Unfortunately for Santa Barbara, the NCAA selection committee did not award the Gauchos a bid to go to the Regionals, instead awarding the Big West’s final playoff spot to an up-and-coming UC Davis team that finished fourth in the conference in their inaugural season in the Big West. Despite barely missing their first postseason appearance since 2001, the Gaucho players are proud of what they have accomplished this season, coming together as a real team after a dismal 2007 that lacked chemistry both on and off the field.
“Our team was very close this year, and we all had each other’s backs,” Fox said. “We hung out together, we went out to dinner together, we partied together and that’s all part of being a tight-knit team.”
Despite the departure of several key seniors – Huggins, Martin, Zuanich, Fox, catcher Mike McColgan, reliever Kyle Brown and third baseman Patrick Rose – the team remains optimistic in the ability of their newer players to step up and fill the void heading into 2009.
“All the young guys that aren’t in the limelight are working hard everyday,” Fox said. “Hopefully they can come back in Fall and step up to these positions that are being left open.
“This team is still growing, and all the experience that myself and the younger guys have gotten this season will help us next year,” Hollands said. “We know how close we were, but I believe we can and will go much further.”