Despite the possibility of winning a Big West title being mathematically impossible at this point of the season, the UCSB baseball team will welcome Cal State Northridge this weekend in its final home series of the season, still in contention of earning an at-large bid for a shot at the postseason.
With just 10 games left in the conference schedule, UCSB is in sixth place in the Big West with a 7-11 league record and 27-14-1 overall on the season. In their last game against Cal State Bakersfield, the Gauchos defeated the Roadrunners thanks to a late-inning surge that propelled them to a 7-3 victory.
Meanwhile, the Matadors will try to rebound after losing two games to UC Davis in last weekend’s series. CSUN enters Caesar Uyesaka Stadium slightly below the Gauchos in the standings at seventh place, with a 5-10 conference mark and 17-30 overall.
It’s been no secret the Gauchos have been struggling since the start of conference play. Santa Barbara began the year with its second-best start in program history at 18-3 and ranked as high as No. 10. Since then, however, UCSB has been in a tail-spin, losing four of six conference series.
The Gauchos reached their low point of the season last weekend when they were swept by first-place UC Irvine in a series critical for Big West positioning. Before Tuesday’s win at Bakersfield, UCSB was held from winning its previous four games, the longest stretch the team had gone without winning this season.
A big reason for UCSB’s struggles has been a lack of quality innings from its starting pitching. Against the Anteaters, Santa Barbara starting pitching combined to allow 12 runs in 12.1 innings of work, while the bullpen gave up a total of five runs in 10.5 innings of relief.
In fact, the Gauchos’ relief pitching has been the most consistent facet of this year’s team. Despite giving up a late lead to UCI last weekend in the second game of the series, the bullpen had previously pitched the Gauchos into having a 20-0 record when leading after the sixth inning.
The duo of sophomore relief pitchers Greg Mahle and Dillon Tate have provided a solid tandem in the back end of the bullpen for UCSB. Besides their reliability, the two have been workhorses for the team. Mahle ranks first in conference appearances by a pitcher with 13 and is coming off his longest outing where he pitched six shutout innings of two-hit ball in the series finale against Irvine.
Mahle’s standout year has taken a backseat to Tate’s own outstanding season. Tate is second behind Mahle in conference appearances by a pitcher with 11 and after pitching three scoreless innings against Bakersfield, he lowered his ERA to 0.55. The shutdown closer has allowed just one earned run in 21 of his 22 outings this year.
UCSB will also need to put more runs on the board against a team that ranks second to last in the conference in ERA at 3.64. Recently, junior shortstop Peter Maris has been the best hitter for the Gauchos. In his last eight games he has hit .362, including collecting three hits and two RBI against CSUB.
Santa Barbara has done significantly better at home than on the road and will look to take advantage of the Matadors’ troubles away from home. CSUN is 5-17 on the road.
Aside from home field advantage, the team will also honor four of its seniors for Senior Day, including starting catcher Jackson Morrow and left fielder Joey Epperson, who leads the team with a .384 batting average.
First game of the series is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. on Friday.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of May 8, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Dustin Harris of The Daily Nexus.