In his 11 seasons at the helm of the UCSB baseball program, Andrew Checketts has elevated the Gauchos to a West Coast power. Strong pitching and an improving offense have the UCSB baseball team in prime position to once again contend for the Big West Conference championship in 2022.
Through March 17, the Gauchos (12-5 overall, 2-1 Big West) boasted a RPI of 25, which puts them among the top teams on the West Coast, and despite a setback in the final game of their series with Cal State Fullerton, the Gauchos have won seven of their last eight games.
“We’ve thrown the ball well, and that has kind of carried us,” Checketts said. “The offense has started clicking recently. We’ve been able to hit for power.”
Cory Lewis has taken on the mantle as UCSB’s ace and Friday starter. He is 3-0 with an ERA of .99. He has struck out 39 batters in 27.1 innings pitched.
Lewis was the No. 3 pitcher last season, but with pitchers Michael McGreevy getting drafted to St. Louis in the first round and Rodney Boone to Cleveland in the eighth, the time has come for Lewis to step up, and he has done so resoundingly. Mike Gutierrez and Ryan Gallagher have slotted into the No. 2 and No. 3 spots admirably, but Gallagher is coming off his worst outing of the year on Sunday against Cal State Fullerton.
“I think starting pitching-wise, we have been okay,” Checketts said. “We’re not getting as deep into the games as we would like.”
In addition, closer Ryan Harvey has embraced his role with recorded saves in five consecutive games, bolstering UCSB’s bullpen.
“In that win streak, we had good starts and good bullpen outings. Harvey, up to that point, had saved five straight games,” Checketts said. “Michael Rice and Matt Ager have come in and done a really nice job in those stopper/setup roles for us.”
Offensively, the Gauchos have made strides to offset the loss of freshman All-American Zach Rodriguez, who stepped away from the game prior to the season.
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It all starts with shortstop Jordan Sprinkle, who was named a preseason All-American by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. Last season, he boasted a .353 batting average and led the Big West Conference with 26 stolen bases.
Sprinkle has not yet found last season’s form at the plate, but he is batting a respectable .284 while reaching on 11 of 12 stolen base attempts. His bat appears to be picking up of late, and his production is key to UCSB’s success.
“I’d been chasing stuff low against right-handed guys, so I just really thought, ‘Stay back, stay to the right side.’ I think that helps me stay patient at the plate and not be jumpy,” said Sprinkle following Sunday’s matchup with Cal State Fullerton. “I think in a couple of my at-bats, I got away from that approach, but by the end of the day, I was happy where I was, and I think if I continue that I will lay off the pitches down and get pitches I want to hit.”
In the middle of the lineup, Broc Mortensen has provided ample power with a team-high five home runs through 17 games. He led the Big West with 15 home runs last season. After a strong offseason, sophomore Nick Vogt has solidified himself in the middle of the UCSB lineup. Vogt is batting .304 with 12 RBIs.
For Checketts, who has led the Gauchos to NCAA Regionals the past two uninterrupted seasons, the day-to-day “process” of building winning habits is perhaps even more important than wins and losses early in Big West Conference play.
“Checketts talks about process baseball; if you are striving for the win and don’t come out on top in a particular game, if you are playing good process baseball, at the end of the day, you are getting wins,” Sprinkle said. “We just take it one pitch at a time, one game at a time, and then we’ll look back at the end of the season and be in the playoffs.”