John Zant: Gauchos are Golden on the Mound

The word is out in the Big West Conference standings, national rankings, and NCAA statistics: UCSB is armed and dangerous on the baseball diamond.

Gaucho pitchers boast the nation’s lowest collective earned run average entering a three-game series against UC Davis this weekend (May 1-3) at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.

John Zant's column appears each week in the Santa Barbara Independent.

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John Zant’s column appears
each week in the
Santa Barbara Independent

Santa-Barbara-Independent

Their ERA dropped to 2.12 after they allowed only one run in three games at Hawai‘i last weekend. Their right-left-right combination of starting pitchers Dillon Tate, Justin Jacome, and Shane Bieber was dominant, although Jacome was a hard-luck loser in a 1-0 defeat on Saturday. In a pair of 5-0 wins, Tate hurled seven innings without allowing a hit on Friday, and Bieber went all the way in his Sunday shut-out.

More than 3,000 fans watched each game at Les Murakami Stadium in O‘ahu. “They draw well, and their crowds are traditionally rough and rowdy; they can really get after you,” UCSB Coach Andrew Checketts said. “Our pitchers kept them sitting on their hands.”

The same three starters will take the mound against Davis as the Gauchos, 8-4 in the Big West, strive to win their fifth consecutive conference series. With a 31-10-1 overall record, UCSB is ranked in the top 10 — as high as No. 6 — on three national collegiate polls.

Here is a look at UCSB’s triple whammy:

DILLON TATE

Junior RHP, 6’2”, 200 lbs.

W-L: 6-3. ERA: 1.57. Innings: 74 2/3. Strikeouts: 77. Walks: 20.

Dillon Tate (Presidio Sports Photos)

Dillon Tate has a fastball that can reach above 95 mph. (Presidio Sports Photos)

Tate emerged as an elite hurler last year, when he compiled a 1.45 ERA with 12 saves as UCSB’s closer. Along with a high 90-mph fastball, he befuddled hitters with a slider that he had developed in the off-season. “Everybody in the country wants Dillon’s slider,” Bieber said. “It’s a disappearing pitch.”

Tate’s move to a starting role this season has multiplied the opponents’ frustrations and increased the admiration of major-league scouts. He’s expected to go high in the June amateur draft. “He has a chance to be the top pick if he finishes strong,” Checketts said.

Because of his potential future, the coaching staff takes a restrained approach with Tate. “He’s such a worker, he can beat himself into the ground,” Checketts said. “We’re factoring active rest and recovery into his routine.” Even though Tate had a no-hitter going against Hawai‘i, freshman Kyle Nelson replaced him on the mound the last two innings.

Checketts said UCSB’s prized prospect was an “under-the-radar guy” at Claremont High School. “He needed to develop his secondary pitches and get stronger. He’s put on 35 or 40 pounds and is still 4 percent body fat.” The coach gave Tate credit for learning the slider on his own. “We try to create an environment where they tinker,” he said. “That [slider] changed his life.”

Tate, who also throws a fastball, change-up, and an improved curve, still has work to do. He issued two walks and hit two batters last Friday. “My issue is control,” he said. “I don’t have as good command as [Jacome and Bieber].”

His record is deceiving. He goes up against the best pitchers on opposing teams. He gave up no earned runs in his last loss, 2-0 to Long Beach State.

Tate hopes for a victory Friday to double his celebrations. It is his 21st birthday. “I still feel like a kid,” he said. He wants to keep that feeling until the pros come calling. “The game is really pure without money being involved.”

JUSTIN JACOME

Junior LHP, 6’6”, 230 lbs.

W-L: 6-2. ERA: 2.46. Innings: 80 1/3. Strikeouts: 68. Walks: 17.

Justin Jacome

UCSB lefty Justin Jacome is nicknamed “Hawk”

In his third season as a starter, Jacome leads the Gauchos with 19 career wins. “Ever since he stepped on campus, he’s had poise,” Checketts said of the southpaw from Redlands. “He works the ball back and forth to keep it off the barrel of the bat.”

Jacome helped UCSB get off to a good start in the Big West this season, striking out 12 Long Beach batters in a 3-1 victory. “I work on the location of my pitches more than velocity,” he said. “Tate has velocity. Bieber has movement. I throw a four-seam fastball, which goes straighter, along with a slider and change-up.”

The one time he was hit hard — Cal Poly erupting for six runs in the second inning — Jacome showed his poise, shutting out the Mustangs in 6 1/3 other innings and enabling the Gauchos to come back and win, 8-7. “I told myself, they’re not going to score any more,” he said.

Jacome (nicknamed Hawk because his name is pronounced “Hawk-oh-may”) said the Gaucho pitchers benefit from the experience of senior catcher Campbell Wear. “He’s a huge part of our success,” he said. “He calls the game. He knows what we do.”

Jacome could follow Tate into the pros after this season, depending on the draft. “That’s my goal,” he said.

SHANE BIEBER

Sophomore RHP, 6’3”, 195 lbs.

W-L: 6-3. ERA: 1.88. Innings: 81 1/3. Strikeouts: 68. Walks: 6.

Shane Bieber

Shane Bieber was an invited walk-on athlete out of high school from Laguna Hills.

“Bieber had dominating command,” Checketts said after the sophomore’s complete game against Hawai‘i. He has now gone 30 innings without issuing a base on balls.

“I’m a late bloomer,” said Bieber, who came to UCSB from Laguna Hills as an invited walk-on without a scholarship. He was thrown into the fire, starting 11 games as a freshman. “They [UCSB’s coaching staff] trusted me,” he said.

“He’s competitive,” Checketts said. “He’s a sinker-slider guy, and his change-up has been getting better. He keeps the ball on the ground. It’s hard for guys to find the gaps against him.”

Another pleasant surprise among Gaucho pitchers is junior left-hander Domenic Mazza. He is the starter in midweek games and has a 5-0 record. He allowed only two runs in in 14 1/3 innings during UCSB’s two victories over USC. When Tate missed his start against Cal Poly because of a kink in his neck, Mazza battled the Mustangs for eight innings in a 7-3 victory. “He’s been fantastic,” Checketts said. “His change-up is special. It floats in there like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons where hitters swing two or three times.

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