Despite not bringing home a national championship on its tremendous postseason run, the 2016 UCSB baseball team still had plenty to be happy about after its season was ended by Arizona in a 3-0 loss on June 22.
The Gauchos finished the season with a great 43-20-1 overall record while finishing third in the Big West conference with a 13-11 record. The 43 wins are a new school record for most victories against Division 1 opponents in a single season. However, that would only be one of many records broken by UCSB in this historical season.
Santa Barbara shot out the gates hard winning eight of its first nine games including victories against then-No. 21 UCLA and winning the inaugural Tony Gwynn Classic. After dropping two of three to Oregon, UCSB went on to win nine straight to be at 18-3 overall after 21 games, earning them a spot in the national rankings.
The Gauchos opened conference play strong as well, taking two of three from then No. 16 Long Beach State and sweeping CSUN for the first time in the Andrew Checketts era. Santa Barbara then made more history as it set a new program record for most consecutive wins at home at 15 after defeating Hawaii on April 30. It would go on to win 17 straight at home before losing to Cal State Bakersfield 5-4, dropping them to 31-13-1.
On May 17, UCSB successfully swept UCLA for the first time since the 2006 season after defeating the Bruins 4-3 at their own place. Riding that momentum, Santa Barbara went on to win two of three at UC Irvine, its first series victory at Irvine since 1986. The Gauchos finished the regular season 37-18-1 earning them the No. 2 seed in the Nashville Regional. Due to a great regular season, eight UCSB athletes were named to All-Big West teams.
The Gauchos opened postseason play with a bang to say the least as with their backs against the wall in the bottom of the 12th inning down 2-1, redshirt junior Devon Gradford made the biggest play of his career hitting a solo home run to tie the game at two.
The outfielder had a tremendous season having the best batting average on the team (.331), and the second best on-base percentage (.412) and slugging percentage (.454) while also earning All-Big West Honorable Mention.
Sophomore Austin Bush then won the game in the 14th inning with a walk-off home run.
The first baseman had an amazing season of his own, leading his team in home runs (11) and hitting one home run in each of his first four postseason games. Bush was named MVP of the Nashville Regional once all was said and done.
After defeating Washington in the opening round of the Nashville Regional, UCSB went on to defeat Xavier twice to reach its first Super Regional in program history. There, Santa Barbara drew Louisville, a 50-win team. While it seemed destined that the Gauchos season would end there, the players had something to say about that.
After a stunning 4-2 upset by UCSB in the first of a three-game series, the Cardinals, led by pitcher Drew Harrington, came out firing in game two taking a 3-0 lead into the final inning. Down to its last three outs, Santa Barbara’s storybook season continued as, with the bases loaded, pinch hitter Sam Cohen, a freshman back-up catcher, hit a walk-off grand slam to send Louisville home and the Gauchos to Omaha.
This is real…
A walk-off GRAND SLAM to go to Omaha by UC Santa Barbara's Sam Cohen! #CWShttps://t.co/avSzj06I9t
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 12, 2016
The Gauchos reaching the College World Series was a dream come true for everyone involved. Something that most fans never thought they would see, was happening in front of their very eyes. UCSB did not go to far at Omaha as it lost its opening match against Oklahoma State 1-0. After eliminating Miami and keeping their championship hopes alive, however, Arizona eliminated Santa Barbara a few days late, ,ending its season.
It truly was a spectacular season for the Gauchos, not just from a winning standpoint but for the athletes involved as well. Junior pitcher Shane Bieber, a first team All-Big West, was drafted in the fourth round by Cleveland after a spectacular season in which he had a 2.74 ERA, 109 strikeouts, second best in the conference and a career-high 12 victories.
Other notable players included redshirt sophomore second baseman JJ Muno who led the team in hits with 68 and batted a solid .294. Redshirt junior Andrew Calica also had a great final season at UCSB batting .252 from the plate, leading the team in OBP (.427) and finishing with the most hit by pitches in school history.
Sophomores pitcher Kyle Nelson and shortstop Clay Fisher, were invited to the Collegiate National Team Trials. Fisher is known as one of the best defensive shortstops in the country while Nelson is known as one of the best pitchers, registering seven wins and 10 saves on the season.
Overall, the Gauchos have a bunch to look forward to. Most of their star field players will be returning for next season with the exception of Calica, who was picked by Cleveland in the 11th round. This was the second time the Indians selected him as, straight out of high school, Cleveland picked him in the 17th round.
What UCSB will have to replace is pitching as, along with the loss of Bieber, redshirt junior right-handers James Carter and Trevor Bettancourt both left to the MLB and as did redshirt senior Justin Kelly.
Still, with all that being said, the Gauchos still have a very bright future. Thanks to their strong staff and one of the best head coaches in the country in Checketts, UCSB has created a winning culture at Santa Barbara and one that many great athletes will want to come and thrive in.