For the second time in three years, UCSB played its way into the South Pacific Conference championship game, putting the team one win away from a berth in the NCBA World Series. But for the third straight year, the University of Arizona did just enough to take Regionals, defeating the Gauchos in a 14-12 heartbreaker Sunday in Henderson, Nev.
“We all thought we had it, but it just didn’t work out.” junior catcher Matt Haddad said.
After hanging tough through six innings, Santa Barbara finally took its first lead in the bottom of the seventh, going up 9-8. The big hit of the rally came off the bat of sophomore starting pitcher-turned-outfielder CJ Connolly, who roped a two-run double with the bases juiced. Playing with a short bench, UCSB was forced to play Connolly in left field after junior outfielder Brad Marasco was ejected at the plate arguing balls and strikes.
“CJ came up clutch,” Haddad said. “His double got us back in the game.”
The hot hitting was contagious for UCSB (25-7 overall, 15-0 SPCW), as seven of nine starters finished with multi-hit games. Unfortunately, Arizona (40-19 overall, 14-1 SPCE) was just as productive at the plate, retaking the lead after an offensive outburst in the top of the eighth. After a sharp seventh inning, Santa Barbara junior ace Zach Buchta — pitching in relief for the first time all season — was tagged with six runs, five of them earned.
With the Nationals on the line, the Gauchos responded with a two-spot in the bottom half of the inning before sophomore closer Derek Austin held the Wildcats scoreless in the final frame. Down 14-11 heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Gauchos were within striking distance.
“We had our backs against the wall for a lot of the tournament, but we knew we had a great chance at taking [Arizona] down in the ninth,” Head Coach Chris Bruner said.
After loading the bases with no outs, the prospect of coming all the way back against #1 seeded Arizona was very real. Unfortunately, the baseball gods were not with the Gauchos on the day of rest. Junior outfielder Ryan Hamilton grounded into a hotly disputed double play, sending home only one run before Wildcat closer Alex Watson shut the door with a game-ending strikeout.
“[Ryan] was definitely safe at first, and a bunch of our guys let the umpire know it,” Bruner said.
It was a disappointing finish in what was a largely successful tournament for UCSB. After dropping its opener 15-4 to the Wildcats on Friday, #2 seeded Santa Barbara handled #4 seeded Long Beach and #3 seeded UC Davis on Saturday to keep its hopes alive in a double-elimination format.
Less than 24 hours after Arizona trounced Buchta — a pitcher with one of the nation’s best ERAs — senior right-hander Freddy Vazquez tossed a complete game shutout in a 10-0 victory over the 49ers. Vazquez had a perfect game going until an LBSU single in the sixth.
“Freddy absolutely shut them down,” Haddad said. “Everyone knew we had to start kicking ass, so winning like that was a big morale booster.”
In a much more competitive matchup with Davis, it took a ninth-inning rally for UCSB to come away with a 12-11 win. Fighting for their postseason life, the Gauchos entered the top of the ninth down three, but left it up one after scoring four times. Junior outfielder Matt Cook kick started the comeback, launching a two-run shot over the left-center wall with no outs. Austin closed out the win for his third save of the season.
Needing a win against Arizona Sunday morning just for the right to play them in the Championships, UCSB broke out the big bats to edge the Wildcats in a 23-17 slugfest. Freshman utility Andrew Bertolero starred at the plate, going 3-for-6 with a homerun, six RBI and three runs from the leadoff spot.
After freshman righty Travis Smith failed to get out of the first inning, junior lefty Greg “Gumby” Shelby came in and calmed the storm, holding a potent Arizona lineup to five earned runs over the next seven innings.
“[Greg] wasn’t blowing anything by anybody, but he was hitting his spots and keeping [U of A’s hitters] off balance,” Haddad said. “He pitched the game of his life.”
Though the Nationals were not in the cards for the club team in its fourth year of being, UCSB’s strong play against Arizona will leave the team with plenty of optimism leading up to 2011.
“We gave Arizona a run I don’t think anyone was expecting,” Bruner said. “It was disappointing, but all in all it was a good season.”