If you are wondering how competitive the Big West conference is going to be this season, look no further than this past weekend’s conference opener.
The No. 10 UCSB baseball team dropped Sunday’s rubber match against the University of Hawaii 12-4 in a game that quickly got out of hand.
“They were a team that came out to play every day,” senior first baseman/outfielder Joey Epperson said. “They punched us in the mouth a little bit. They beat us and had more quality at-bats, more quality pitches, more quality defensive reps than we did.”
UCSB is now 19-5 on the season and 1-2 in the Big West, while Hawaii improves to 14-13 and 2-1 in conference. It is UCSB’s first series loss dating back to last year.
Santa Barbara fell behind Sunday as the Warriors jumped out to a 10-1 lead in the fourth inning, an early deficit the Gauchos could not recover from. Sophomore Domenic Mazza did not have his usual stuff on the mound, as the starter allowed eight earned runs in 3.1 innings of work while UCSB hitters failed to produce runs.
“We didn’t play the best of our game, but I didn’t think we necessarily beat ourselves,” sophomore pitcher Dylan Hecht said. “They had a lot of guys that came out and beat us. We have to give credit to them.”
Scoring runs was not a problem in the middle game of the series. UCSB piled on the runs in the fourth inning beginning with a two-run double by sophomore utility player Robby Nesovic, after consecutive hits put runners on second and third base. Two more triples in the inning extended the Gauchos’ lead to 6-0 heading into the fifth.
Trailing 8-1 in the seventh inning, Hawaii began a thunderous comeback on a bases-loaded triple that brought three runners home and cut the deficit 8-6.
Sophomore closer Dillon Tate was brought in for the two-inning save but encountered problems as well. After escaping a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning, Tate put the go-ahead run on base, but retired the final batter on a comebacker for the 8-7 UCSB win.
Junior pitcher Austin Pettibone worked effectively in his second start of the season in his comeback from injury. The team’s ace pitched five shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out two before exiting the game.
“He was outstanding. He pounded the strike zone, he had a good fastball, his breaking ball has improved from where it was last year,” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said. “I thought he had a good feel for his changeup early in the count. He was very competitive.”
Opening day of the conference season for the Gauchos was met with a stellar performance by the Warriors’ senior starting pitcher Matt Cooper. UCSB entered the game on a six-game winning streak and off to its best start since the 1984 season. However, Cooper ended the streak by tossing a complete game and allowing only one run.
Not until the seventh inning did the Gauchos put a run on the board on a sacrifice bunt, but were unable to muster anymore and fell 3-1.
“I think it was a series where we can learn some stuff,” Hecht said. “They beat us and we just have to go and focus on Cal Poly now because there’s nothing much you can really look into.”
Despite the series loss to open Big West play, the Gauchos remain one of the top teams in the conference if their preseason record has any bearing. UCSB entered conference play with the second best non-conference record in the league, bested only by Cal Poly.
After the first week of conference play, Santa Barbara ranks tied for sixth in the Big West standings with a major challenge coming next week againsst the Mustangs.
UCSB’s next series is at Cal Poly beginning Friday.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of March 31, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.