After sweeping La Salle University in its first series of the season this past weekend, the UCSB baseball team earned an 8-4 victory against visiting Westmont College on Tuesday afternoon at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. With the win, UCSB improves to 3-0 on the season, while NAIA-recognized Westmont drops to 7-4 on the year. UCSB senior pitcher Nick Loredo gave up just one unearned run through six innings for the Gauchos.
[media-credit id=16616 align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit] “The pitcher really sets the tempo,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “[Loredo] settled in and gave the offense the ability to relax a little bit.”
Sophomore Steven Moon’s three-run hit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth was part of a five-run scoring effort that propelled the Gauchos to a 7-1 lead after five innings.
“I was looking for a fastball and tried to just get a base hit out of it,” Moon said. “I was lucky enough to put it down the line a little bit.”
UCSB’s offense was supported by strong play on the defensive side, as Westmont was held to just one run through seven innings. An error on the UCSB side in the top of the seventh inning allowed Westmont to score three runs and cut the lead to 8-4.
“We made some missed cues throwing the ball around,” Loredo said. “We’ll work on that before the games this weekend.”
UCSB travels north to Washington for a series against Washington State this weekend in another three-game matchup before Big West play begins in April. After last year’s mediocre finish, the Gauchos look forward to using a different mentality and newfound motivation in order to reach a postseason berth this summer.
“Our effort wasn’t good enough to compete in the Big West last year,” Brontsema said. “The change this year is that we’re going to be more competitive.”
The Gauchos played through three separate losing streaks of five games in a row throughout the season last year, going 3-9 at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium during conference play. In the interview, Brontsema seemed reluctant to bring up the past at all.
“We lost some home series last year that were very disappointing,” he said. “Some of those losses outweighed the wins.”
UCSB finished in fifth place — its lowest conference seed since they finished seventh in the Big West in 2007.
This year, two teams from the conference have been voted into the top-30 in the nation, according to a national poll by USA Today. UCI is currently ranked #26, while defending Big West Champion Cal State Fullerton is ranked #9. Last season, Fullerton lost only three conference games, including one to UCSB, while second-place Irvine went 17-7. UC Riverside and Pacific finished in third and fourth place, respectively, with records of 13-11 and 12-12.
“Fullerton is seen as the top team in the conference,” junior Ryan Palermo said. “It’s always a special weekend when we play them.”
With such a competitive schedule, UCSB has practiced a more disciplined way of playing during practice and game situations.
“The mentality is to keep the game simple and don’t look too far into the future,” Trevor Whyte said. “The coaching staff has preached the small things.”
Even playing catch has become a significant factor in the baseball team’s preparation for league play.
“It’s all about being in a routine, getting into a routine and sticking with it,” Whyte said. “Once you get into conference you already have your routine down.”
Scouting reports on baseball teams do little to predict another squad’s strategy. UCSB will rely on past experiences with particular teams to understand particular players and patterns on offense and defense.
“Scouting reports could be on or off,” Whyte said. “Most of it is based off what teams have tried to do in years past. We learn from that and make the adjustments.”
Adjustments will be crucial to the team’s performance during Big West play, which will provide UCSB with ample competition throughout the coming months.
“We’re looking forward to playing all [Big West games],” senior pitcher Jesse Meaux said. “Every conference game is a fight to the death.”
Teams usually have team captains. This year, the UCSB baseball team does not.
“Everyone needs to lead,” Brontsema said. “It’s not a situation where you got to follow the leader. It’s a situation where everyone needs to do the right things.”
UCSB returns a number of players from last year’s team. Seniors such as Mark Haddow will provide experience for newcomers to UCSB.
“Haddow is a guy that has taken the lead as much as anybody,” Brontsema said. “We’re asking everybody to be a leader, everybody to do things right.”
UCSB has 16 seniors on its active roster, as well as 12 freshmen. Only nine players are either sophomores or juniors.
“Freshmen have stepped up and done a great job,” Whyte said. “They are doing everything they can do to learn from the upperclassmen.”
While the team’s starting lineup is anchored by older players, three freshmen — pitcher Cameron Cuneo, infielder Joe Woodward and catcher Joe Winterburn — highlight a strong class of first-year players. While Cuneo was the only freshman to see playing time against Westmont, Winterburn made his collegiate debut in the home opener against La Salle, and will continue to catch during the team’s upcoming series in Washington.
“[Winterburn] is a very polished and poised guy,” Brontsema said. “There’s nothing that he’s shown us so far that tells us he doesn’t deserve more [playing] time.”
UCSB lost arguably one of its best players to the MLB when Mario Hollands was drafted during the offseason. Seniors Loredo and Meaux will fill this year’s pitching rotation. Meaux, given All-Big West Conference honorable-mention accolades last year, was a late-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010, but chose to return to UCSB and play his final season. Joining Loredo and Meaux on the mound will be senior Greg Davis, who finished second on the team for most strikeouts last year.
“[We] have guys returning who are going to be better, and that should make us better,” Brontsema said. “Guys like that can help fill the void of losing a guy like Mario.”
Haddow supports the team’s defense from right field, and will be a major contribution to UCSB’s offensive output as well. As a junior last season, Haddow was tied in leading the team with 17 stolen bases with an on-base percentage of .373.
Whyte, who led the team in multiple offensive categories last season and hit five home runs with a .304 batting average, will start at first base. Sophomore Steven Moon fills the shortstop spot left vacant by Valaika. He made six starts during the 2010 season as a freshman.
“We have depth — we have a lot of really good guys,” Meaux said. “There’s a lot of seniors and a lot of experience, and the freshmen are a bunch of good ballplayers.”
A NEW BEGINNING
Last year’s battles within the Big West ended poorly for UCSB, as the team finished the season at 10-14, tied with rival Cal Poly for fifth place. This year’s squad plans on using the underachieving effort of 2010 as encouragement for its conference games as the season continues through spring.
“We have a huge motivation to do what we failed to do last year,” Whyte said. “Last year we focused too much on the following series or who we were playing in months to come. It’s all about taking it one pitch at a time [this year].”
Extra effort began during fall practices, where the team would routinely meet during the week for mandatory and optional conditioning sessions and workouts. The training regimen has continued through Winter Quarter, and UCSB hopes that the work ethic will prove its worth in game-situations.
“We’re all in very good shape for the long run,” Palermo said. “We have a lot of guys that want to work extra hours at night or work out on a day off. It’s going to play a huge role during season.”
The team hopes that its losing effort shown last year will fuel a mentality that many Gaucho players share.
“Everybody’s real serious about their business,” Meaux said. “We’re all working toward the same goal, which is making it to regionals then making it to Omaha.”
Omaha, Nebraska has been the annual home of the College World Series since 1950. Because the Big West is so strong — ranked by rivals.com as the sixth-best conference in the nation — UCSB does not necessarily have to win the league title in order to continue playing in the postseason. However, success in the team’s difficult preseason schedule will help the Gauchos reach its goal of a postseason berth.
“Last year we focused too much on the following series, or who we were playing in the coming months instead of focusing on the current task,” Whyte said. “This year we’re focusing on the now.”
“The now” will continue during the coming weeks, as UCSB faces several opponents before Big West play begins against Cal Poly on April 8. However, before league games begin, UCSB will continue to use its newfound work ethic and positive team unity to try and capitalize on a new season.
“It’s all about staying as positive as you can,” Whyte said. “There’s nothing you can control. The past is the past.”