Hyped as the series of the season, the No. 13 UCSB baseball team demonstrated its championship mettle this past weekend against Big West powerhouse No. 19 Cal State Fullerton, winning yesterday’s rubber match against the Titans 2-1.
“I thought the guys did a good job of having poise,” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said. “I say that all the time, but they did a good job of bouncing back.”
UCSB improves to 22-8 overall and 4-5 in Big West play as it waits to face Brigham Young University today. CSUF drops to 18-13 overall and 3-3 in league.
In yesterday’s series finale at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, the Gauchos benefitted from stellar pitching from three of their pitchers, including sophomore closer Dillon Tate, who bounced back for a two-inning save after losing game one of the series.
“He wasn’t out there tentative; he was out there pounding the strike zone,” Checketts said. “For me, that’s a huge sign of maturity and someone who knows their role.”
Just a few hours after completing game one of the series on Saturday — due to darkness delaying its completion the day before — the Gauchos took the second game by a score of 3-2 on senior outfielder/infielder Joey Epperson’s walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth.
The teams were caught in a pitcher’s duel between sophomore Domenic Mazza for UCSB and junior Grahamm Wiest of the Titans. Both kept batters off balance by throwing breaking pitches, with Mazza’s curveball helping him get through 5.2 innings of relief and not allowing a run. The left-hander improved to 3-2 on the season after coming in for freshman starter Shane Bieber.
“I just wanted to pick up my teammate, Bieber. He struggled a little bit, but he kept them to only two runs,” Mazza said. “I just wanted to come in and keep them where they were at, basically limit the inning and pound the zone.”
With a new pitcher for Fullerton on the mound in the ninth, junior outfielder Cameron Newell singled up the middle on the first pitch of the inning to put a runner on first base. After a sacrifice bunt advanced the runner, the nation’s leading hitter, Epperson, connected on a fastball for his second walk-off hit against a ranked opponent in his career.
“I thought they were just going to put me on, but when they didn’t, I figured they were pitching around me,” Epperson said. “I was trusting that Newell’s got good legs out there, and I was just trying to put a good swing on a ball, and not do too much.”
Game one foreshadowed the closeness of the two teams. What was thought to be a low-scoring game turned out to be anything but as each team knocked around each side’s best pitcher early on.
The Titans’ pitcher Thomas Eshelman came in with a 1.43 ERA and 5-1 record, but the Gauchos roughed him up for six earned runs, the most given up in his career. UCSB’s ace, junior Austin Pettibone did not fare better, lasting just three innings before exiting.
The game was tied 9-9 in the tenth before darkness forced the match to be rescheduled before the start of game two. CSUF came out on top when play resumed by sneaking in two runs in the 11th inning for the hard fought 11-9 win.
“You end in a tie to be resumed the next day and there’s a little bit of a letdown,” Epperson said. “Unfortunately they put a couple good swings together in that first half and we went down 2-0 right away. It was tough because I thought the day before I kind of felt if we grinded that out, it would’ve gone our way.”
UCSB takes a break from conference play for today’s match against BYU. The Cougars are 14-23 overall on the season and 5-10 in the West Coast Conference after losing two games in its series against Pepperdine University.
Brigham Young will rely on its three best hitters in junior third baseman Dillon Robinson, senior infielder Brock Whitney and freshman outfielder Brennon Lund. Each is hitting above .300 and will cause problems for UCSB pitching.
First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of April 14th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.