UCSB has soared in the college baseball ranks along with the balls that the Gauchos have sent flying toward the outfield fences. After scoring a 4-1 victory at Cal State Bakersfield on Monday night — breaking a school record with their 13th consecutive win — the Gauchos are 31-5 and boast the nation’s highest winning percentage (.861).
The results have propelled Santa Barbara into the top 10 of every national poll, topping out at No. 6 in Collegiate Baseball News.
On one hand, excellence on the diamond is not far-fetched for a program that reached the College World Series three years ago. On the other, the Gauchos were coming off two losing seasons. They were a mediocre 27-28-1 last year.
UCSB’s current lineup is basically the same as the group that had a .265 batting average and .386 slugging percentage a year ago. The new figures: .290 and .495. The offensive numbers reflect the most striking change in the team’s attitude, although the pitching has also improved markedly from a 4.21 earned-run-average to 3.09.
Head coach Andrew Checketts is in charge of the pitchers. He brought in two new assistants to work on the offense: Donegal Fergus from Washington and Matt Fonteno from St. Mary’s.
Checketts said that shaking up the staff was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to do what’s best for the program. We have good players who weren’t reaching their potential. Our offensive identity has gone from night to day with the same players.”
Fergus and Fonteno share a let-’er-rip philosophy of hitting. To instill that in the Gauchos, Fergus said, “We start by building up some relationships, building trust, and have fun doing it. We’ll look at mechanics of swing, watch videos and look at angles, but my thing is mostly based on mentality. It’s about empowering them, giving them confidence, training them not to be scared, being their cheerleader, their biggest backer, knowing they’ve got people behind them.”
Fergus has the title of associate head coach. His personality is quite the opposite of his boss’s. Checketts is the quiet man and Fergus the holler guy. “Ferg is super charismatic,” Checketts said. “I’m more reserved.”
Wearing shorts during a practice last week, Fergus displayed a tattoo on his left shin of the Endless Summer movie poster. “I’m a little unbuttoned up,” he said. “My hair, the beard, and the tats are kind of weird to some people, not basebally coachy, but Andrew and I have the same principles and values.”
Deeply Irish on his mother’s side, Fergus has the gift of blarney. “I’m not shy to talk; people have noticed that,” he said. “Maybe that’s why Andrew brought me in, so he could talk less. I enjoy it. I like to talk about my guys. I’m so fired up. I’m excited about guys like Armani Smith, Thomas Rowan, Tommy Jew, Eric Yang. … Tevin Mitchell has gone through so many years here with injuries, not a huge role for a lot of it, then to embrace it and hit homers, steal bases… Sometimes it’s the bottom of the order, sometimes the top. They all feel like anybody can contribute; everybody’s got a role. We’re never out of it.”
In game three of their key Big West series against UC Irvine, the Gauchos had no hits through four innings against Anteater ace Trenton Denholm. “Then he makes a mistake, and Armani hammers it into the corner, a double,” Fergus said. “McClain[O’Connor]hits it off the wall. Then a single [by Kyle Johnson], and in the seven spot, Jason Willow hits it off the wall. That’s where we’re scary. We can get you in a hurry.”
The three-run outburst was enough for UCSB to earn a 3-2 victory. O’Connor’s and Willow’s blows were among 22 triples the Gauchos have hit this year. Their home run total of 42 is already seven more than last year’s. They have launched 33 sacrifice flies.
“We’re probably leading the conference in flyball outs over groundball outs,” Checketts said. “It’s the intent of hitting the ball hard, hitting the ball in the air, pushing the outfield back. It comes from a more aggressive mentality.”
Yang, a junior catcher, leads the team with a .382 batting average and 34 RBIs. Packing a punch are junior outfielders Smith (.294, 9 doubles, 6 triples, 8 homers) and Jew (.296, 8 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers). They each have 30 RBIs, as does sophomore infielder Andrew Martinez. Rowan, a senior from Santa Ynez, is hitting .333. Mitchell is hitting .325 in the lead-off spot.
“The coaches assure you of your ability,” said Smith, whose BA slumped to .224 last year. “It’s unreal the confidence they give you. I’m speaking not just for myself, but for everyone on the team.”
Fergus grew up in a small town in Oregon, played ball at Linfield College, and got into coaching when injuries sidelined him. “My career wasn’t chasing the big-league dream, it was watching and learning about the game,” he said. “I know how hard it is. I saw how other guys struggled.”
Even though Washington had great success during his five years as a Huskies assistant — including a College World Series appearance last year — Fergus welcomed the opportunity to come to Santa Barbara with his wife, Kim, and three sons: Seamus, Finnegan, and Maclean. “No hiding the heritage there,” he said. He bought a surfboard (“My father grew up a surfer in San Diego”) and sometimes hits the waves off Devereux Point.
This summer, he will be coaching a team trying to qualify for the European Baseball Championships — the national team of Ireland, naturally — but first he hopes to continue inciting this year’s Gaucho surge deep into the collegiate postseason.