For the second straight week, the UCSB baseball team walked off with its series opener thanks to a game-winning hit, giving them the control in a three-game series at home. Unfortunately for the Gauchos (23-14 overall, 6-6 in the Big West), their inability to close out a series would repeat, as the visiting Cal Poly Mustangs (29-10, 10-5 Big West) upended the home team in Saturday and Sunday’s games in a crucial conference clash.
“Anytime you get a walk-off [hit], it’s a huge lift,” senior center fielder Brian Gump said. “Even though we rode that momentum into the next day, we couldn’t quite get it done.”
Junior second baseman Matt Valaika was the player who provided the lift for Santa Barbara, driving in the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with an opposite-field single to send the crowd home happy.
Though Valaika’s heroics were nothing short of amazing, little could overshadow the performance of junior starting pitcher Joe Gardner. Gardner (3.51 ERA, 60 Ks) fought through a tough fifth frame and continued all the way to the end despite an alarmingly high pitch count. The right-handed heat heaver earned his sixth victory of the season in his first career complete game with the 6-5 win.
“The fact that he gave up five runs and still threw a complete game showed how hard he battled for us,” Gump said. “He probably threw up around 140 pitches, so for him to still stay in there and get the win was great to see.”
If Gardner’s gritty outing was a battle, the pitching of Saturday starter, sophomore left-hander Mario Hollands, could be classified as no less than an all-out war. Despite ongoing command struggles that led to a season-high seven walks on top of 10 hits, Hollands gave up only four earned runs through six innings.
“His curveball wasn’t there all game, but his slider got good and settled him down once he went to that,” senior pitcher Zach Samuels said.
With the help of a pair of inning-ending double plays, the left-handed slinger kept the game within striking distance for the Gaucho offense. After seeing Valaika gunned down at home plate to end their first scoring threat in the second inning, the Santa Barbara sluggers began to chip away by tacking on runs in the third, fifth, seventh and eighth innings. Despite being down only one on numerous occasions, UCSB could never grab hold of the lead and ultimately fell 6-5 after a great stab and turn by the Cal Poly third baseman started a double play to end the game.
“It looked like he [Valaika] might have gotten under the tag [at the play at the plate], which was a tough call for us being down one for most of the game,” Samuels said. “After the game we were pretty disappointed, but we had to shake it off quick before playing on Sunday.”
Though Samuels executed his pitches effectively in only his second weekend start on Sunday, the results would not show it as “The Wizard” gave up six earned through only four innings. After not getting the strikeout call in the third off two good looking pitches, Samuels had his very next offering turned on for a two-run homerun, a grave omen of a fourth-inning implosion.
“Samuels in all honesty threw really well today,” Gump said. “He had some really tough breaks … his numbers definitely don’t represent his performance.”
The situation would not improve after Head Coach Bob Brontsema made the call to the bullpen, as relievers Greg Davis and Patrick McIntyre would combine to give up seven runs laboring through the fifth and sixth frames.
The Santa Barbara bats generated a respectable seven runs in Sunday’s rubber match, including a solo shot from Valaika in the fifth. Their output would not be enough to stand up to the Mustangs however, as Cal Poly put up a remarkable 15 runs in a relatively one-sided finale.
After dropping two straight weekend series, the slew of conference matchups ahead appears even more daunting as top Big West contenders Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine still remain on schedule. With their sights set on the playoffs, the Gauchos do not need to do too much in order to get back to their winning ways, according to Gump.
“It’s pretty simple … we can compete with the best of them, but if we want to win, we have to stay consistent and win the close ones.”
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