Kyle Nelson, UC Santa Barbara

All six outs Kyle Nelson recorded were strikeouts. (Shotgun Spratling)


Gauchos Unleash The Full Nelson


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — UC Santa Barbara lefthander Kyle Nelson knew he had to make a change.

UCS Santa Barbara logoCal State Fullerton Titans logo

Nelson wasn’t happy with his recent results. In his last four outings, including his first start of the season, Nelson had seen his numbers decline. He had given up 20 hits and allowed 10 runs (eight earned) in 12.2 innings after previously being among the nation’s ERA leaders with only 24 hits and four earned runs allowed in his first 44 innings. His ERA had more than doubled from 0.81 to over 2.15.

The Gauchos ace reliever went to the lab. He studied tape of his recent outings and looked at the velocity of his pitches and determined he needed to tweak his strikeout pitch, his slider.

“I had struggled the last couple weekends with it not quite doing what I want it to, so I kind of re-evaluated it,” Nelson said. “I noticed that in times where I would [previously] get guys to swing and miss on the slider on the 0-2, 1-2 counts, they were being able to foul them off and fight and fight and see more pitches. I’d have to get back to the fastball and then stay with that.”

Nelson wanted to get a bigger break and get the pitch to dive more than sweep. By looking at the velocity on his pitching charts, he discerned he was throwing the pitch too hard.

“I was throwing it in the mid-80s,” he said. “I took the velo down to low 80s and just tried to get a bigger break so I could miss the entire bat instead of just the barrel. Balls hit in play have weird things happen, especially against Fullerton. I just tried to miss the whole bat. That was the focus this week in practice and then brought it out to the game.”

Rather than staying behind the baseball and throwing a harder slider, Nelson decided to turn his wrist over a bit more. It was a success.

The modifications paid big dividends Friday in UC Santa Barbara’s 3-2 win over Cal State Fullerton in the series opener between the Big West’s top two teams at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.

After Josh Adams scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh inning on a groundout, the Gauchos (32-13-1, 10-6) turned the ball over to Nelson looking for a six-out save. He produced a six-strikeout save. Using the slider heavily, Nelson struck out the side in the eighth inning and did the same, around a single, in the ninth inning to lock up the victory to pull within two games of the Titans.

He’s not a traditional closer. It’s not like he’s got 17 saves at this point,” UC Santa Barbara head coach Andrew Checketts said. “We’ve used him earlier in the game and we’ve tried to use him when we’ve had the biggest moment in games we think we have a chance to win. He hasn’t been automatic, but he’s been pretty close.”

The teams traded solo homers early. JJ Muno hit the first for the Gauchos. Timmy Richards evened things up in the fourth inning with a shot to left-center field on a 90-mph fastball. Sam Cohen put UCSB back ahead with a homer in the fifth inning, but Richards answered with an RBI single in the sixth inning.

But when Santa Barbara scored and turned the ball over to Nelson, the game was over. Fullerton (30-17, 12-4) couldn’t lay off his slider that had good two-plane break after his tweaks.

The slider is tough. It’s really tough when guys don’t lay off of it,” Checketts said.

The Breakdown

Game Changer

Sam Cohen, UC Santa BarbaraSam Cohen reacts after his first career home run. (Shotgun Spratling)

Freshman Sam Cohen is third on the UC Santa Barbara depth chart at the catcher position, but the Gauchos are beat up at the position. Starter Dempsey Grover has a stitched up knee that has made blocking difficult while backup Thomas Rowan has a banged up hand.

Knowing that Rowan probably wouldn’t be able to catch the entire series, Andrew Checketts gave Cohen a shot on Friday to take better advantage of the righty-lefty matchup rather than starting the left-handed swinger against Fullerton lefthander John Gavin on Saturday.

“Sam’s really swung the bat well,” Checketts said. “I think our whole dugout feels like something is going to happen when he gets up.”

What happened on Friday was Cohen making the most of his opportunity. He clubbed his first collegiate home run on a Connor Seabold fastball up in the zone to put UCSB ahead 2-1 in the fifth inning. Fullerton quickly answered back with a run to tie the score, but Cohen helped set up the Gauchos go-ahead run in his next at-bat.

Facing reliever Miles Chambers, who Fullerton brought in to try to get Cohen to roll over an offspeed pitch for a groundout, Cohen was able to see a changeup up in the zone enough that he was able to flare the ball into right field for a soft single. A batter later, Tevin Mitchell drove in the go-ahead run with a RBI groundout that was set up by Cohen.

Top Performances

Cal State Fullerton:

  • Timmy Richards: 2-for-4, R, HR 2 RBI
    Dalton Blaser: 2-for-4
    Miles Chambers: 1.2 IP, 2 H

UC Santa Barbara:

  • Shane Bieber: 7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 6 K
    Sam Cohen: 2-for-3, R, HR, RBI
    JJ Muno: 1-for-2, R, HR, RBI, HBP
  • Kyle Nelson: 2 IP, H, 0 BB, 6 K

In Their Words

UC Santa Barbara head coach Andrew Checketts talks about the Gauchos’ 3-2 series-opening win over Cal State Fullerton, including Shane Bieber’s performance, the luxury of Kyle Nelson and starting Kyle Nelson:

UC Santa Barbara C Sam Cohen talks about his first collegiate home run and catching Shane Bieber in a 3-2 win over Cal State Fullerton:

Bottom Line

– Cal State Fullerton entered the weekend with a three-game lead on UC Santa Barbara in the Big West, so a single loss isn’t going to define the weekend. The Titans got beat in a quality Friday afternoon matchup. While Rick Vanderhook would like for his team to not chase as many pitches out of the zone, the loss isn’t a major setback. However, if the Titans want a shot at being a regional host, they need to find a way to come back and take the series.

– When you are in a rough patch, you need your biggest stars to step up and set you back on track. Shane Bieber and Kyle Nelson combined to do that for the Gauchos on Friday. After losing three of four and being 6-6 in the last three weeks, UC Santa Barbara needed a quality outing from Bieber and he provided. The Gauchos have to be eyeing the sweep, if they are hoping of stealing the conference crown from Cal State Fullerton. The first step to a sweep is winning on Friday. Step 1 complete.

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