Baseball Season Preview: Gauchos Looking to Build on Regional Appearance

Dylan Hecht (Photo by Tony Mastres)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For third-year UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts, last year's appearance in the NCAA Tournament Regional round – the first for the school in over a decade – was not the summit for the program, but rather a stepping stone towards something greater.

He and the Gauchos went hard at work over the summer and fall months to ensure another postseason appearance would be in the cards for a team whose ultimate goal lies in a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.

"We've got a good young group here with a lot of returners," said Checketts. "We've got a lot of power arms who are starting to throw strikes, and offensively we've got a solid group throughout who know how to execute a team offense."

That group of returners includes all but two starting position players and nearly the entire pitching staff. Offensively, the Gauchos will be guided by All-Big West talent in Joey Epperson, Woody Woodward, and Cameron Newell, as well as slugging first baseman Tyler Kuresa and conference Freshman of the Year Robby Nesovic. Starters Austin Pettibone, Justin Jacome, Dylan Hecht, and relievers Dillon Tate and Greg Mahle highlight one of the deepest pitching stables in the conference.

UCSB's standout 2013 season coupled with a roster heavy on returning contributors has the college baseball world expecting big things from the Gauchos. The team was ranked No. 39 in a preseason poll by Collegiate Baseball, the program's first preseason national ranking in over 25 years. College baseball website Perfect Game sees UCSB finishing second in the Big West once again, which would likely result in another postseason appearance.

With a strong core in tow, Checketts put together one of the toughest schedules in school history. This season, UCSB is slated to face off against juggernauts such as top-ranked Cal State Fullerton, opening series opponent and fifth-ranked North Carolina State, defending national champion UCLA, 2012 national champion Arizona, and traditional powers such as Wichita State and Mississippi State. Overall, UCSB's 2014 opponents have combined for 73 appearances in the College World Series and 12 National Championships.

"It's exciting that we're able to bring some of these programs to Santa Barbara," said Checketts. "These programs have long-time traditions, and it's absolutely necessary that we play these teams if we want to advance and achieve our goal of going to Omaha."

Season tickets for the 2014 season are now available for just $75, only $2.60 per game. Season ticket holders can also purchase additional season seats for a discounted rate of $25. To purchase your tickets today, call 805-893-UCSB or click here.

Before opening the season against NC State this weekend, join us as we go around the diamond and see how the Gauchos stack up for the 2014 season.

INFIELD

For UCSB, it could be a tale of two infields in 2014. Behind the plate and on the right side, the Gauchos are set three players who were extremely productive last season and will be looked on to be big contributors this season.

Checketts and the rest of his coaching staff were very happy to hear that first baseman Tyler Kuresa decided to return to the Gauchos for his junior season after being drafted in the 14th round of last year's First Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves. The 6-4 lefty was the main power threat for UCSB a season ago, leading the team in extra base hits and slugging percentage while providing top-level defense. He will be a mainstay in the heart of the lineup this year.

Woody Woodward will have a new number this season, No. 2, but his superior on-base skills should remain unchanged. An outfield/infield hybrid last year, Woodward was an All-Big West Second Team selection in 2013 after hitting .389 in conference play. Remarkably, he reached base in each of his first 44 games started.

Senior catcher Jackson Morrow was one of the premier defensive backstops in the conference last year, leading the league in runners picked off (seven) and runners caught stealing (22). A competent bottom-of-the-order bat, he ranked among the conference leaders in sacrifices and hit-by-pitches in his first season at the Division I level. Playing in all but one game last season, Morrow should see a similar workhorse-like load this campaign. Junior Campbell Wear and College of San Mateo transfer Jarrett Costa will serve as his backups.

The left side of the infield will be more of an "X-factor" for the Gauchos this season, as shortstop Peter Maris and third baseman Joey Epperson will be starting full-time at their respective positions for the first time in their collegiate careers.

Epperson, a redshirt senior, had one of the more memorable seasons in program history last year. After missing the early part of the season with a staph infection, the Lafayette, Calif. native battled back to win the starting left field spot, and ended up being one of the key cogs in the UCSB lineup, finishing in the top-three in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. His walk-off home run over then-No. 19 UC Irvine on May 5 was widely considered to be the turning point of UCSB's 2013 season. Not coincidentally, his full-time return to the lineup was met by the team with a 23-11 hot-streak to close out the season. Checketts feels good about placing Epperson at third base, as the hands and athleticism he displayed at first base during his time with Santa Barbara City College and in UCSB practice should translate at the hot corner.

Maris, a junior who has seen time at both middle infield positions and third base during his time at UCSB, won the shortstop job outright after a strong performance in fall ball. A strong defender, a steady spot in the lineup should result in a more consistent offensive output. Though slender at 5-8 and 170 pounds, one-third of his hits last year went for extra bases.

Sophomore Ryan Clark, who appeared in 35 games last season, will be in the mix for playing time at short and third base as well. Freshman Brody Weiss will miss the early portion of the season with an injury, but should provide depth in the infield upon his return.

OUTFIELD

UCSB's pitching staff will be thankful for the outfield corps, as all three projected starters possess above-average speed and should have no problem tracking down fly balls.

Junior Cameron Newell shifts to right field after playing in center last year. The speedster led the Gauchos in 2013 with 69 hits, leading to an All-Big West honorable mention. His 13-game hit streak and 33-game on-base streaks were both bests on the team.

Redshirt freshman Andrew Calica, a storied recruit who missed most of last year with a back injury, will have the opportunity to lock down the center field job now that he is back at full health. He hit a combined .450 over his junior and senior seasons at Eastlake High School.

Scott Quinlan, a Chabot College transfer who missed 2013 with an ACL injury, will patrol left field for the Gauchos.

Last year's Big West Freshman of the Year Robby Nesovic will mix in the outfield after having his mobility limited by injuries in his rookie campaign. His team-best .405 on-base percentage makes him an invaluable addition to the lineup. When not in the outfield, he will slot into the DH role alongside Greg Mahle and newcomers Dempsey Grover and Josh Adams.

PITCHING STAFF

The Gauchos were dealt a blow this past offseason when staff ace Austin Pettibone incurred a shoulder injury, but the team possesses enough depth to survive in his absence. The All-Big West Second Teamer is expected to miss the first month of the new campaign.

Taking his spot in the Friday role will be sophomore flamethrower Dylan Hecht, who thrived as the team's closer last year on his way to a Freshman All-American Award. Hecht clearly has the stuff to match any ace in the conference, evidenced by his staff-best 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings and .917 WHIP. His mid-90's fastball and "wipeout" slider will be joined this season by a changeup Coach Checketts qualifies as a "swing-and-miss pitch." He will need to cut down on his walks in his new role, but if he can come close to replicating his 2013 ERA of 1.83, the Gauchos will be set at the front of the rotation.

Returning as the Saturday starter is sophomore Justin Jacome, who was remarkably solid in his freshman year. Finishing the year with a 5-4 record and a 3.89 ERA, the 6-6 southpaw allowed the fewest hits and fifth-fewest walks among qualified Big West pitchers. Sitting in the mid-80's as a freshman, he has improved his velocity as a sophomore, as he now can touch the 90 MPH threshold.

Freshman Shane Bieber may have the biggest impact of all newcomers, as he will start the year as the Sunday starter. As a senior at Laguna Hills High, he recorded a 1.40 ERA and struck out 77 batters against 16 walks in 80 innings, leading to a selection as Team MVP. His strong performance continued this fall with the Gauchos.

UCSB has a number of choices for the midweek starting job, and all three have shown the ability to succeed at the Division I level.

Nesovic spent a large portion of last season as the Sunday starter, and delivered a number of electrifying starts, including a 6.2 inning stint of shutout ball against Cal State Fullerton on Apr. 14. Junior Andrew Vasquez struck out more than a batter per inning in 39.2 frames of work last year and had one of the more dominant seasons in recent memory as a freshman (1.93 ERA, 104 strikeouts, named a Freshman All-American). Sophomore Domenic Mazza had a strong first year with the Gauchos while pitching in a long relief/spot start role. He compiled a 3.78 ERA while fanning 7.3 batters per nine innings.

Though it was no slouch last season, the bullpen should be a strong point for the Gauchos this year, as the team sports a number of power arms with upside.

Returning as the bullpen anchor is Greg Mahle, who was third on the squad in innings pitched last season despite starting just four times. Fully healthy after offseason knee surgery, expect to see Mahle often in 2014.

New in the closer role will be sophomore Dillon Tate. He pitched just three innings as a freshman last season, but sports a mid-90's fastball with tilt and multiple breaking pitches that should cause fits for opposing hitters. Whichever long-man doesn't start the Tuesday game will also be available out of the bullpen, giving Coach Checketts an even wider set of options.

Hard-throwing righty Connor Baits will look to improve on a promising freshman year, and newcomer Joe Record made an impact in the offseason and should see time of the pen as well.

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