No. 2 hitter Luke Swenson gets the high-fives as he returns to the dugout after scoring another run.

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UC Santa Barbara: Potential National Power?

The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos are looking to make amends for 2014’s shortcomings. If Tuesday’s win at LMU is any indication, they mean serious business.

The Gauchos come from a town that is nestled along the California coast and has been more noted for being the “second home” for celebrities who want to escape the hustle, bustle and smog of Hollywood and want a nice beachside house up the coast. Well now, coach Andrew Checketts has built a potential monster in wine country (Heavy emphasis on “potential”). The pitching-heavy, hitting-light Gauchos showed just the opposite tonight in mauling LMU 18-4 in Westchester. Now… can the Gauchos keep it rolling?

WHAT I SAW AT GEORGE PAGE STADIUM

Well this one was close for the first three innings, but then the monster awoke. No. 15-ranked UCSB exploded for 10 runs in the fourth inning alone and made this one a white-on-rice type of smothering.

It was a great setting on the Westchester plateau tonight as the Gauchos downed the homesteading Lions.It was a great setting on the Westchester plateau tonight as the Gauchos downed the homesteading Lions.

LINESCORE:
UCSB – 010 (10)30 004 – 18  21  1
L.M.U. – 001 200 100 –  4  9  0

PITCHING
WP: Connor Baits, 1-0
LP: Cory Abbott, 0-1
Save: None

TOP HITTERS.
Gauchos:
– Robby Nesovic, 2-for-5, 2RBI
– Peter Maris, 2-for-5, 3RBI
– Cameron Newell, 3-for-5, 3RBI

Lions:
– Austin Miller, 3-for-4, HR, RBI
– Ted Burckle, 3-for-4, RBI

RECORDS:
– UCSB, 17-6
– LMU, 13-11

HOW IT WENT DOWN: 
To put it to you simply, after the fourth inning came around there was no more mystery left to this game. The Gauchos sent 15 men to the plate in the top half of the frame, 10 of which scored, and this thing became a mid-week boat race in no time flat. UCSB would cruise on from there and coast to a decisive 18-4 win.

After playing a trio of innings to a 1-1 deadlock with both starting pitchers in decent shape, the game unraveled in a hurry for Lion starter Cory Abbott. And then it continued with the relief of Tyler Cohen, Kevin Glomb and finally with Tim Peabody. They all got pock-marked for at least three runs each.

Want to know how complete the domination was for the Gauchos? Here is how that fateful inning went down:

– Double
– RBI single
– Walk
– Walk
– RBI single
– RBI single
– 2RBI
– Flyout
– Walk
– 2RBI single
– 2RBI single
– Walk
– Strikeout
– 2RBI single
– Groundout

The top of the fourth merry-go-round started with Cameron Newell, who smacked a leadoff double and then was knocked in by Robby Nesovic with an RBI single. Both Newell and Nesovic each had a pair of hits in the inning and also two RBI and three RBI respectively. Peter Maris was the third star of the inning, blooping an RBI single in his first at-bat and then closing the scoring in the inning with a two-run single about 20 minutes later.

No. 2 hitter Luke Swenson gets the high-fives as he returns to the dugout after scoring another run.No. 2 hitter Luke Swenson gets the high-fives as he returns to the dugout after scoring another run.

To add a little window dressing, the Gauchos also plated three runs in the fifth and then got a two-run homer in the ninth inning from pinch hitter Austin Bush to bring their offensive total to 16 runs. Two more runs were plated when Clay Fisher got an RBI groundout and Ryan Clark accounted for the final run of the night with an RBI single.

Gaucho starting pitcher Connor Baits picked up his first win of the season by going four innings and giving up six hits and two earned runs. He wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but did prevent the big inning from LMU. The Lions got one run in the third when Tanner Donnels bounced into a double play which scored leadoff man Austin Miller from third base. Two more runs crossed the dish for the Lions in the fourth as Ryan Erickson and Billy Wilson led off the frame with back-to-back hits. But after they were both knocked in by Austin Miller.

KEY STAT:
– 20 hits.
Coming into the game, UCSB hit a respectable .299 as a team. After tonight, that team average climbed to .307 as the Gauchos went 20-for-45 in the game.

COACH SPEAK:
Before the game I got the chance to catch up with UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts, who has seen his team glide out to a 17-6 mark which includes wins over Kentucky, Oregon, Sacramento State, Pepperdine, USC and Wichita State. Not to mention a tougher-than-expected split with UT-Arlington this past weekend.

Sorenson: You guys are ranked at No. 15 in the country, your RPI is in the mid-20s, how do you feel about that? How do you like getting that kind of notoriety?

Checketts: Rankings only really matter at the end of the year. But obviously we will take any kind of good publicity that we can get because we’re a mid-major that is trying to raise our profile and those kind of things always help from a recruiting standpoint. Now I wouldn’t say we fell in any kind of trap but last year we were ranked as high as No. 10 in the country at one point and then we didn’t even play in the postseason, so I think staring at those things can be a waste of time and energy, so we’re really just more focused on getting better every day.

Sorenson: Speaking of last year’s finish, was getting snubbed a major motivation for this year? Did you guys talk about it in the offseason, did you address not making the NCAA tournament last year?

Checketts: Oh yeah. We actually talked about it a lot. And we analyzed it a bunch. The Big West kind of cycles its series, one year you’re playing all the national powers at home, the next year you get them all on the road. And last year we lost a bunch of conference games by one run, most of them being on the road. So we have talked a little bit about what we are going to do to win those road games. We talked about how we struggled a little bit offensively in conference games too.

We also talked about playing better teams in the nonconference. Last year our nonconference schedule wasn’t very tough, but knowing we were going to be a little older and a little more experienced this season we tried to have a little bit more challenge in the schedule this year. Last year we lost that N.C. State series right out of the gate and it helped us assess where we were against an Omaha-caliber team and we missed that opportunity. So I think the schedule is lined up a little bit better this time since we were challenged early and played some good teams, but we know it’s going to get harder starting this weekend with Long Beach State.

Sorenson: But not only the Kentucky and Oregon series, but you’ve also played a pretty good Sacramento State team, and UT Arlington ended up being pretty tough for you guys too, right?

Checketts: Yeah, Sac State is a really good team. I was really impressed with their team. I think by the end of the season they are going to make a lot of noise. They don’t beat themselves, they’re very disciplined, their pitchers throw a ton of strikes and they play good defense. I think they’ve got a chance to be in a regional again for sure.

And UT Arlington was very offensive. I don’t think I saw a fastball that they did not swing at all weekend. They came out and swung the bats really well. Their front-line pitching is good, I don’t think they had as much depth as some of the other teams we’ve played, but they were really offensive-minded.

Sorenson: I know it got a lot of publicity earlier on but the whole thing with bringing Dillon Tate from the closer role to the Friday starter role, you’ve been pleased with that move I assume?

Checketts: Yeah, some people tweeted about that before the season, so I guess I did the right thing. I’m glad I listened to them (laughs). But going into it, we knew it wasn’t a slam dunk either way so we knew it was a difficult decision and we didn’t make that decision until the Tuesday before opening day. We had a guy roll his ankle and it turned out it forced our hand in starting him anyway, which turned out to be the right move. I’m glad I took everybody else’s advice on that (laughs again).

Sorenson: How does that change your bullpen now?

Checketts: Well, James Carter was doing well in the role but now he is going to have Tommy John. He felt it pop throwing in the bullpen on that Sunday game up at Sac State. So now he’s done for the year and he was a good closer too and he had good stuff. But we did get a shot in the arm last week when Robby Nesovic came on and pitched out of the bullpen for the first time. He was originally recruited as a pitcher, but he had some arm issues last year and couldn’t pitch any. He threw three innings against UT Arlington and he looked great, didn’t give up a single hit, struck out five. He looks like he’ll be contributing again which is huge for us. But It’s a little bit of a coin toss for the rest of the guys, there is a lot of talent there, but there is also a lot of youth and you know how youth is, it can be great one day and then it can be young the next. You never know what you’re going to get.

Sorenson: You have four pitchers who have thrown 25 innings or more and then nobody else has more than nine innings. Are you looking for somebody else to step up on your staff? Is that important for your success?

Checketts: We have a couple of guys other than Nesovic that are going to have to come through for us. We have two really talented freshmen we are excited about getting more innings for them in Alex Garcia and Kyle Nelson. Both of them have really good stuff. They may look like freshmen at times but they also look amazing at times.

Sorenson: Robby Nesovic is hitting .400 right now, you also have guys like Andrew Calica at .365, Cameron Newell at .361 — is that what you expected from those guys?

Checketts: It was a big question mark coming into the season but Neil Walton, who was a volunteer coach for us last year, has really adapted to the job of running our offense and having the guys prepared. But I still think we’re a little top-heavy. We’ve joked about how this can’t be all on Robby Nesovic’s shoulders, it’s a joke but there is a little bit of truth to it. The bottom end of our lineup has been a platoon-type situation with our guys. Dalton Kelly has a really nice swing and is a good player and we should see more of him moving forward.

Robby Novesic slides under the tag o LMU catcher Cassidy Brown.Robby Nesovic slides under the tag of LMU catcher Cassidy Brown.

Sorenson: Going into Big West play this week, what would you like to see change in your team? What do you guys need to improve on the most?

Checketts: I’d like to see our guys put their foot on the gas when we’ve grabbed a lead. We have a tendency to let teams hang around a little too long. We’d like to see our offense take a little more pressure off our bullpen late in games. It could make a huge difference for us in the late portion of games. When we have a lead and then momentum starts to switch and things start to go sideways, everybody out there just tends to want to hang on instead of staying aggressive. We’re not like Cal Poly last year who had a lot of power and thunder and swung the bat really well to hit a bunch of doubles and whatnot. We’re not one of those type teams, we just have to be one of those teams who really relies on execution and being fundamentally sound late in games.

MEET THE GAUCHOS

Pitching

This has been a little bit of a star-crossed proposition already for the Gauchos, though it’s hard to argue with their 2.24 team ERA. Dillon Tate was an All-American closer last year but was moved to the starting rotation just before the season started. James Carter, a low-90s righty with pinpoint control made five saves early on, but then was felled by Tommy John surgery, as you read above. The rotation of Tate (3-2, 1.69 in six starts), Justin Jacome (3-1, 2.27 in six starts), and Shane Bieber (4-2, 2.27 in six starts), has been lights out. LHP Domenic Mazza (2-0, 1.78) has been good in the midweek. But UCSB has relied on just those four for a large portion of its mound work.

Tuesday saw Connor Baits get his first start and his longest stint with four innings. No other pitcher on the staff has more than nine innings of work. But the talent is there, it’s just young and needs to work through the rough patches. As a team, the Gauchos have thrown 204 strikeouts and issued just 68 walks. And surrendering just 59 earned runs in 218.1 innings of work is pretty impressive too.

As Checketts noted above, keep an eye out for wildly talented freshmen like LHP Kyle Nelson (1-0, 3.00 in nine innings coming into Tuesday’s game) and RHP Alex Garcia (0-0, 1.42 in six innings coming into Tuesday), who both saw some action on the bump tonight and should figure prominently in the Big West portion of the schedule that begins this weekend. If they can come along and supply more depth to this pitching staff, it’ll be huge.

Hitting

The top hitters are some of the best hitters on the West Coast. The bottom of the lineup is like a nameless chorus line on Broadway.

Robby Nesovic is the bell cow of the offense, hitting .400 with six doubles and 23 RBIs coming into Tuesday’s game from his cleanup spot in the order. Leadoff man Andrew Calica (.360, two triples, ten stolen bases) is backed by a pair of seniors in Cameron Newell (.375-2-16, .451 OB%) and No. 2 hitter Luke Swenson (.303, two triples, .403OB%). That’s a pretty good murderer’s row for the top of the Gaucho offense.

It’s the rest of the batting order that is in flux. Tonight, five-hole hitter Dalton Kelly showed the potential that Checketts lauded above, sweetly smashing a solo shot that landed just to the right of the blue monster in left field. He came in with a .250 average, but Tuesday he collected his team-leading fourth home run. Catcher Campbell Wear (.243) and second baseman Peter Maris (.247) have shown flashes of effectiveness as senior sticks. Tonight, Maris was the catalyst, going 2-for-5, including those three RBIs all coming in the decisive fourth inning.

Fielding

Ah, now you’ve found another Gaucho strength. After committing an error tonight, they are fielding at a stellar .977. Tonight’s infield of 1B Dalton Kelly, 2B Peter Maris, SS Clay Fisher and 3B Ryan Clark had committed a grand total of five errors so far this season. In fact, Maris, a third baseman by trade, and Clark, the third baseman for now, have committed just one error between the two of them.

Defensive assistant coach Eddie Cornejo is quickly establishing himself as one of the better infield coaches in the country, as UCSB has now had .970-plus defensive percentage in three of the last four seasons. Actually, not to steal his thunder here, but that seems to be a habit of a lot of Big West teams over the years. But the Gauchos are leading the charge this time around.

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