Gauchos start Big West campaign at Cal Poly

UCSB’s baseball team opens up its Big West Conference season on Friday with some catching up to do. The Gauchos, who travel to Cal Poly for a weekend series, are the only Big West team that didn’t play a conference series last weekend.

Instead, UCSB enters league play this weekend with a clean slate against a Mustangs squad that went 1-2 at UC Riverside last week. While 0-0 in league, the Gauchos (12-11) do hold a three-game losing streak after being swept in a Saturday doubleheader at Sacramento State and falling to Loyola Marymount 12-4 on Tuesday.

Come see the Gauchos at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium!

Friday and Saturday’s games, part of the Blue-Green Rivalry, start at 6 p.m. while Sunday’s game starts at 1 p.m. All three games can be heard on AM 1490 and streaming live online at UCSBgauchos.com.

UCSB finished tied for fifth last season with Long Beach State at 11-13 while Cal Poly earned its first NCAA Tournament berth, joining Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine in the postseason. The Mustangs have struggled out of the gate this year, however, compiling an 8-19 record. To be fair, Cal Poly played a tough preseason schedule, facing No. 3 UCLA three times and No. 1 Arizona State once.

Meanwhile, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton have put together strong preseasons and are off to perfect starts in conference, sweeping UC Davis and Cal State Northridge. The Anteaters and Titans figure to be at the top of the league all season. Irvine is getting the most respect nationally with an overall record of 17-9, claiming the No. 21 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

The Gauchos host the Titans, who went to the College World Series for the 16th time last year, at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium next weekend and travel to Irvine for their third-to-last series starting May 14. Other than Fullerton, UCSB also hosts conference series against UC Riverside, Cal State Northridge and UC Davis.

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Fullerton and Irvine aren’t the only teams getting national recognition, as UCSB has two National Player of the Year candidates in Mario Hollands and Matt Valaika. Hollands is on The College Baseball Foundation’s National Pitcher of the Year Watch List while Valaika, who led UCSB in batting average and slugging percentage last season, was put on the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List for consideration as the country’s best collegiate shortstop.

Hollands is the Friday piece of a starting rotation that has been a strength for UCSB so far this season. Hollands has been untouchable at times this spring, tying a UCSB single-game record with 16 strikeouts against Northern Illinois. The junior left-hander has lost his past two starts but still boasts an ERA of 3.00 and 46 strikeouts(third-best in conference).

Jesse Meaux, part of UCSB's stellar starting rotation, will pitch on Saturday against Cal Poly.

Sunday’s starter, Nick Capito, is the reigning Big West Pitcher of the Week thanks to a complete-game shutout at Sacramento State on Thursday. Capito has a 4-2 record. Jesse Meaux, who will pitch on Saturday in San Luis Obispo, and Nick Loredo complete a staff that has posted a 4.00 ERA through 22 games.

On offense, Valaika hasn’t disappointed, compiling a .312 batting average with four home runs and a team-high 19 RBIs. But it has been JC-transfer Beck Wheeler who has actually been UCSB’s best hitter so far with a .362 average. Wheeler, who transferred from Orange Coast College, also leads the team with a .545 slugging percentage.

The Gauchos have shown decent power as a team, having tallied 22 home runs on the season. Only Fullerton and Northridge have hit more.

There are a pair of local prep stars filling big roles in the Big West right now.

Former Santa Barbara High aces Crosby Slaught and Mason Radeke had starting gigs with their respective teams, UC Irvine and Cal Poly, last season but have been limited in their roles this season. Radeke, who went 6-2 as a true freshman, started the spring 3-1 with an ERA under 3.00 but elbow troubles have since kept him off the mound. Radeke will not pitch on Sunday against the Gauchos. Slaught, a junior, has also battled elbow issues and has only two appearances in spot relief as a result.

For more information, visit the Big West’s baseball site.

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