As an underclassman, a medley of injuries would force Gaucho baseball’s Matt Valaika to watch a lot of the action from the sidelines. With a competitive spirit to match the talent that made him UCSB’s starting second baseman as only a freshman, it took a toll on the junior middle infielder to play spectator for large parts of both the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
“It was tough … I had never been in the position of sitting on the bench while I watched the team play without me,” Valaika said.
It was an adjustment the Valencia, Calif., native would grow accustomed to, missing time on two separate occasions in his inaugural collegiate season. After breaking his collarbone in an early-midseason game, Valaika would see his freshman comeback effort cut short as a broken finger on a botched bunt sat him down for the final weeks of the season.
Things would not get much easier for the Hart High School graduate in his sophomore year. Though he put up impressive numbers through the first 18 games of the season, Valaika shut it down after nagging shoulder problems reached a breaking point.
“I finally decided [the pain] was too much, so I got [my shoulder] checked out, and sure enough, I had torn labrum,” Valaika said. “After opting for surgery, I was told I wouldn’t be ready to play this year.”
Though doctors would diagnose a redshirt season, Valaika had other ideas. With his arm bound to a sling, the Santa Barbara second baseman pushed himself harder than ever before to make up for limitations in physical activity. The hard work would pay off, as he miraculously rebounded in time to earn back his starting job in time for the 2009 season.
“Bouncing back from such a dramatic surgery in the time he did was unheard of,” junior left fielder and teammate Gunnar Terhune said. “He had serious doubts about playing going into the season, but it didn’t take him long to get his confidence back.”
With the ghost of injuries past looming, the play of Valaika progressed through the season as his injury curse never came to fruition. Slowly but surely, the steady extra-base hitter crept his way up the UCSB batting order, eventually playing out the second half of the season as either the five hitter or in the cleanup spot.
“For him [Valaika] to come back healthy and provide a potent bat in RBI situations was critical, especially with all the offense we lost,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said.
At season’s end, Valaika would find himself with a .343 batting average to go with a .545 slugging percentage, leading the team in both statistical categories. His most important statistical success, however, lied in often-overlooked category – games played. The 50 out of 52 in-game appearances to his credit paid testament to his first full-fledged season.
“It was vital to have his consistency all season long,” Terhune said. “With a great two-strike approach and ability to drive in runs late in games, we always had confidence whenever he came to bat.”
If Valaika returns for his senior campaign, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he will carry over his consistency from this season, likely improving upon his already impressive output that included six homeruns, 40 runs and 45 RBI this year.
“I think he’s going to continue progressing, which speaks a lot about his potential,” senior center fielder and teammate Brian Gump said. “He is absolutely the no-brainer pick for being the top offensive guy returning.”
Whether he opts to continue his Gaucho career or leave early to pursue a career in the Major Leagues, there is no doubt Valaika will be held in high regard for an off-field demeanor that has garnered both his coaches and teammates unyielding respect.
“The guy is very humble above all else,” Terhune said. “Through everything, he’s really held it together … riding out the lows and celebrating the highs. He’ s a role model for all of the younger players in this program.”
Valaika’s modest character could very well be attributed to his modest frame, which will likely pose further challenges as he moves through professional ranks. Though he is listed at only 5’10”– a measurement likely taken with cleats – Valaika has never let his size hold him back from achieving big-time success.
“We like to joke about having the smallest four-hitter in the country,” Gump said. He doesn’t have the biggest stature, but he has a lot of pop … I’m not sure how he does it.”
Unless he is drafted with a signing bonus worthy of collegiate departure, Valaika by all rights should be back next year, astounding teammates with his play as his legacy continues to unfold. A fourth and final year for the Gauchos is certainly an outcome the budding star is willing to embrace.
“You can’t ask for more than this,” Valaika said. “The beach, the baseball and the women … it’s all the college experience you could ever ask for.”