The No. 24 UCSB baseball team will play in its biggest series of the season beginning tomorrow when it travels to face the top team in the Big West, No. 20 UC Irvine.
“This is a big one when you look at our RPI numbers,” Head Coach Andrew Checketts said. “We’re close to Irvine, so going down there and getting a series win on the road against a good RPI team would be good for us.”
UCSB enters with a 26-11-1 record overall and 7-8 Big West record after Tuesday’s 5-5 tie against UCLA. The road has presented problems for the Gauchos this year. The team has lost six of 13 games away from home, but will attempt to turn things around considering six of the nine remaining conference games will be played on the road.
“We haven’t been as good on the road this year as maybe we like to be since conference has started,” junior first baseman Tyler Kuresa said. “We’re looking to turn it around as far as that’s concerned. It’s the same mentality going into this weekend as any weekend.”
UC Irvine comes into the weekend’s contest as the hottest team in the conference with an 11-1 league and 29-14 overall record on the year after defeating USC in a one-game series on Tuesday. Prior to that game, UCI swept three of its four conference series with its lone loss coming against UC Riverside. However, the Anteaters’ conference record at this point might not reflect the team’s true identity.
Irvine has preyed on the lesser teams of the conference and has yet to face a ranked Big West opponent. This series against the Gauchos marks the beginning of a tough stretch of ranked conference opponents for UCI, which has to play Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton to close out the regular season.
The Gauchos have been hurt by inconsistent starting pitching that has resulted in the team playing from behind on many occasions. UCSB will need its pitchers to go deeper into games and command the strike zone against an Anteater team that features many threats on offense. Among those hitters is junior first baseman Connor Spencer, who leads the team with a .366 batting average and 33 RBI.
UCSB will send out its same three starting pitchers it did in its previous conference series. Sophomore Justin Jacome will take the mound in game one after displaying a solid outing in his last start. In that performance against UC Riverside, Jacome pitched into the seventh inning and allowed only two runs to pick up his fifth win of the year.
Junior Austin Pettibone will try to bounce back from a subpar start last week. The Gauchos’ ace was not his usual self in his last game as he allowed five runners to reach home plate, which raised his ERA to 4.94. Freshman Shane Bieber will take the mound in the third game of the series.
Besides pitching playing a key role in gaining the upper hand, the Gauchos will also need to perform better offensively to come out with a series win.
“We’re going to have be better at executing,” Checketts said. “It’s a difficult park to score in and they have good pitching, so we’re going to have to be able to [play] short game and be able to bunt and be able to execute hit-and-runs and do the little things we didn’t do against [UCLA].”
Meanwhile, the Anteaters enter in first place primarily due to their pitching. Irvine has a combined 2.50 ERA and senior Andrew Morales leads the staff with the nation’s third-best ERA at 0.78.
If UCSB establishes a lead in the final innings of any of its games, the team has an excellent track record of closing the door on its opponents because of its bullpen. Junior relief pitcher Greg Mahle has excelled in his role as setup man for the Gauchos this year. In 24 appearances, Mahle has a 1.90 ERA to go along with 30 strikeouts. Against the Bruins, Mahle retired the six batters he faced without trouble.
Santa Barbara’s most consistent pitcher all year long however, has been sophomore closer Dillon Tate. Tate has served as the lights-out stopper coming out of the pen for UCSB this year. To put into perspective how dominant the hurler has been so far, he has struck out 39 batters in only 29.1 innings of work. Tate had his longest outing of the season against UCLA, throwing four innings of shutout ball before the game was called a draw.
Despite pitching four innings on Tuesday, Tate will be available to pitch as early as the first game of the series if the opportunity presents itself.
“He went through 56 pitches [against UCLA]. He should be able to bounce back and be okay,” Checketts said. “It probably won’t be a long save. We usually don’t use him long on Friday, but if he has a save opportunity I think he’ll be available.”
First pitch at Irvine is scheduled for tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of May 1st’s print edition of The Daily Nexus
Photo by Dustin Harris of The Daily Nexus