As long as his team is heading in the right direction and playing baseball the right way, UCSB coach Andrew Checketts has been known to relax seemingly peripheral matters like requiring that the Gauchos be clean-shaven.
But one-third of the way through the regular season, with the Gauchos off to a disappointing 7-11 start, the boss is pulling tight on the reins. “We’re struggling to do all kinds of stuff,” Checketts said Sunday after UCSB’s 7-0 loss to the visiting Stony Brook Seawolves. “We’re struggling to show up on time, wear the right clothes, all of the discipline details … We’ve seen the product of that on the field: not making tough, competitive at-bats; not coming out of the bullpen with strike-one mentality.”
After last year’s historic run to the College World Series, where the Gauchos finished as one of the top six teams in the nation, they came into this season ranked on every top-25 poll. Now they are nowhere to be found. “Chomaha” was their slogan when they made it to Omaha, the final destination of college baseball’s championship contenders. As of now, call it “Nomaha.”
There is still plenty of time for the Gauchos to clean up their act. A strong showing in Big West Conference games will be crucial. The Big West counts for something in college baseball. UCSB qualified for the NCAA playoffs by finishing third in the conference last year, and in the postseason, they eliminated such powers as Louisville and Miami.
As if avenging Louisville’s downfall, the Kentucky Wildcats swept a three-game series from the visiting Gauchos earlier this month. UCSB came home to face Stony Brook after dropping six of seven games on the road.
In the opener of the series, the Gauchos erupted for seven runs in the first inning and went on to defeat the Seawolves from Long Island, 12-4. Another early outburst — five runs in the first — spurred the Gauchos to an 8-5 victory on Saturday. Then came Sunday’s stinker, when they were blanked on five hits and committed four errors on the field.
“Two steps forward, one step back,” Checketts said. “It would have been nice to take three steps forward.”
The longest home stand of the year will continue this weekend, when the Gauchos play three against New Mexico State (Fri.-Sun., Mar. 24-26), followed by a Tuesday game against Pepperdine. Then Long Beach State will come to town for the opening of Big West play March 31-April 2.
“Hopefully we’ll have a good series against New Mexico State and start off hot against the conference,” said Colton Burns, UCSB’s leadoff hitter.
Burns earned Junior College First Team All-American honors last year at College of the Canyons. He enjoyed watching UCSB, to which he had already committed, in the televised playoffs. “They were a scrappy team,” he observed.
Burns is trying to set a scrappy tone for the Gauchos. He is their leading hitter with a .393 average and a .532 on-base percentage. He has stolen four bases and ends every game with dirt on his uniform. “I’m doing the best I can to get on for my teammates and get things rolling in the first inning,” he said.
Starting the season as an outfielder, Burns has since moved to second base. Clay Fisher, UCSB’s outstanding shortstop, has been sidelined by an elbow problem, necessitating the move of veteran JJ Muno from second to short.
Muno, who was UCSB’s top hitter (.379) in the 2016 postseason, has been struggling at the plate with a .179 average and 19 strikeouts. He had the announcer introduce him as “Jeremiah” over the weekend (his full name is Jeremiah Jeorge Muno), and it was speculated that he did so in an attempt to change his luck. But Muno disclosed that he was honoring his namesake uncle, Jeremiah Murphy, a Catholic priest who died March 1.
“I’ve had slumps before, but this is probably at the top of the list,” said Muno, who has dropped to the ninth hole in the batting order. “I’m just trying to grind through it. The hardest part is not being able to do it for my team. I feel like I’m letting them down a little bit.”
Billy Fredrick, an everyday player in the outfield after his pinch-hitting heroics of past years, is hitting .341, and slugging first baseman Austin Bush has hit for a .313 average with three home runs. Along with Burns, newcomer Armani Smith has earned a spot in the starting lineup. The freshman outfielder from De La Salle High in Concord is hitting .364.
“The lineup is set, although Fisher being down changes things,” Checketts said. Not so settled is UCSB’s pitching rotation. The coach was not happy to see Stony Brook score 16 runs in the series, although starters Noah Davis (4-1) on Friday and Kyle Nelson (2-2) on Saturday pitched well enough to win.
Checketts gave 67 freshman Ben Brecht his first collegiate start on Sunday, and he showed promise, getting ahead of hitters with his fastball, but he gave up some big blows, including a two-run homer by Stony Brook freshman Nick Grande.
“We’re holding tryouts,” Checketts said of the search for starting pitchers beyond Davis and Nelson. “The pitching’s been like a box of chocolates. We’re trying to get the right one out of the box.”
Game of the Week
3/25: High School Track and Field: 79th Annual Santa Barbara Easter Relays Against the backdrop of Leadbetter Beach and the Pacific Ocean, prep athletes will make their marks Saturday in this historic event. There will be six relay races ranging from once around the track (4x100 meters) to 10 times (distance medley). Featured varsity individual races between 2:30-3:45 p.m. are the mile, hurdles, and 100-meter dash. Field events are the high jump, long jump, triple jump, pole vault, shot put, and discus throw. 9am-5pm. Nick Carter Track, La Playa Stadium, SBCC, 721 Cliff Dr. $3-$7. Visit easterrelays.com
S.B. Athletic Round Table Athletes of the Week
Matt Mills, San Marcos swimming
In a league meet against Dos Pueblos, the sophomore’s winning time of 21.59 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle broke a 43-year-old school record. He also won the 100 freestyle.
By Paul Wellman