The UCSB baseball team began the season with one of its best starts in program history. Since the calendar turned to April, however, the Gauchos have been in a tail-spin and must now win all three of their games this weekend at the University of San Francisco to maintain any shot at reaching the postseason.
“I think we’re just in a low point in our season,” senior left fielder Joey Epperson said. “We started to let ourselves become defined by things that just aren’t us. We’re not hitting well in clutch situations. There’s not a sense of urgency in our at-bats.”
UCSB comes into this weekend with a 9-12 record in the league and 29-16-1 mark overall while San Francisco carries a 24-26 record into the contest.
The Dons are familiar with Big West opponents this year, having faced UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton earlier in the season. USF came up on the losing side in each of those respective series and has won only twice in six games this year against the conference.
Santa Barbara will need all the help it can get going into this series.
After failing to defeat Pepperdine in its last game, the last opponent that could have given the Gauchos a serious résumé booster ahead of the NCAA tournament selection, UCSB must win its remaining games to have any possibility of playing in the postseason.
“There’s still a shot. All is not lost,” Epperson said. “We’re certainly in a really tough place right now as far as getting into the playoff picture. We would need to sweep both these next two weekends on the road.”
The sense of desperation was felt in the 12-5 loss to the Waves. In that game, Head Coach Andrew Checketts resorted to using seven different pitchers and maintained a quick leash throughout the game.
As early as the first inning, Checketts began experimenting with his pitching rotation after sophomore Domenic Mazza gave up UCSB’s two-run lead despite him throwing only 14 pitches.
Overall, UCSB was hurt by its lack of efficiency on defense. The team committed five errors in crucial parts of the game that led to runs in what was one of its most disappointing defensive performances of the season.
“There’s not a lot of confidence in the guys and in our entire group,” Epperson said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t win any aspect of the game: pitching, defense, offense. You’re not going to win any game when you’re not doing anything particularly well.”
UCSB will need to turn things around but faces the challenge of doing it on the road. Given the Gauchos’ struggles away from home this year, playing with an 8-10 road record, the team will need to get on the board early and take advantage of scoring opportunities.
However, most of the losses have come against Big West opponents. Before losing to Pepperdine, UCSB had won its previous two non-conference road games.
Santa Barbara has had productive performances from some of its players despite not winning as of late. Junior Greg Mahle has been doing double duty on the mound and from behind the plate as designated hitter.
Known this season for his reliable relief pitching, Mahle has been in the lineup in four of UCSB’s last five games and is batting .414.
Coming out of the bullpen, the left-hander has an ERA of 2.15 and has pitched the second-most innings on the team with 62.2.
Junior shortstop Peter Maris has had a breakout season for UCSB. In UCSB’s last five games, Maris batted at a .333 clip.
His 2-5 hitting performance against Pepperdine was one of the bright spots for the Gauchos. The shortstop was added to the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List, one of 35 players included on the list that is given out to the nation’s best shortstop.
USF will depend on junior outfielder Bradley Zimmer to knock in runs for the Dons.
Zimmer recently made the 30-man cut for the Golden Spikes Award, the top honor given to the best amateur baseball player in the country.
This season, Zimmer is hitting with a .366 batting average. He also has seven homeruns, six triples and 21 stolen bases.
He is ranked within the top 60 in the country in both batting average and stolen bases. The junior leads his team’s offense.
First pitch on Friday is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday’s games will each begin at 1 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of May 15, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Dustin Harris of the Daily Nexus.