Gauchos Hold On for 6-5 Win at USC

Austin Bush (photo by Nick Rogers)
Austin Bush (photo by Nick Rogers)

LOS ANGELES – UC Santa Barbara got off to a slow start in Wednesday night's non-conference game at USC, but recovered to score six unanswered runs before hanging on for a 6-5 win at Dedeaux Field in the team's final road midweek of the year. 

USC (19-29) jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two innings on an RBI single from Frankie Rios and a two-run home run from Blake Sabol, but the Gauchos (22-27) adjusted their second time through the lineup and scored runs in four straight innings to go up 6-3 heading into the seventh inning stretch. 

Veteran bats JJ Muno and Austin Bush were the biggest factors in UCSB's offensive turnaround. 

Bush got the Gauchos on the board in the fourth inning, hitting a one-hop comebacker off USC starting pitcher Mason Perryman and into the 3-4 hole for a run-scoring single. He then provided UCSB with what turned out to be crucial insurance runs in the seventh, driving an outside pitch over the left-center field fence to extend his Big West-leading home run total to 15 on the season. 

Freshman right fielder Armani Smith set up Bush's decisive blast with a high-quality at-bat. Facing an 0-2 count with two outs and nobody on, Smith laid off on a few tough pitches, including a 2-2 change-up just below the zone, to work the walk and bring up Bush. 

Not to be outdone, Muno launched a solo shot inside the right field foul pole to lead off the fifth, which cut UCSB's deficit to one at the time. His next time at bat, he rolled a grounder through the middle to bring in Bush for the go-ahead run. 

"We struggled offensively early and didn't adjust very well to Perryman," said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. "But we started to put some pressure on him later and our at-bats got better and better and that allowed us to get some offensive momentum."

After a shaky start, UCSB's bullpen – led by a stellar four-inning outing from freshman righty Liam Steigerwald – held the Trojans off the board for six straight frames until the Trojans rallied in the ninth to bring in a pair of runs and put the game-tying run on third base.

Despite walking a tightrope the whole inning, UCSB closer Shea Barry bounced back and got a harmless infield pop from two-hitter Lars Nootbar to end the game. 

As well as the Trojans hit the ball their first time through the order, it looked like Wednesday's affair might be a high-scoring one, but the UCSB bullpen adjusted and mostly shut down USC's bats from the third inning on. 

Junior righty Steven Ledesma, pitching for the sixth straight game, started it off with two innings of shutout relief. 

But the heavy lifting was done by Steigerwald, who limited USC to just a bloop single over his four innings. Combined with the streak he brought into the game, he started his NCAA career by retiring 20 consecutive batters before ceding a base hit with two outs in the eighth. He bounced back from that temporary setback by freezing Frankie Rios on a 2-2 fastball on the outside black to retire the side. 

"It's a lot easier to get offensive momentum when your pitcher is throwing up zeroes and zeroes and zeroes," said Checketts. "Liam was pretty special today. He was in and out of the zone, working both sides of the plate, his change-up worked well off his fastball and generated some swing-and-misses. He was the star of the game."

Bush's seventh inning home run added to his prolific power resume. The reigning Big West Fielder of the Week, who hit four roundtrippers last week, has now homered against seven of UCSB's last eight opponents. His 15 dingers, which are tied for fifth-most in UCSB single season history, are the most by a Gaucho batter since Watt Wilkerson in 2002 (16). 

UCSB plays its final home conference series of the year this weekend, welcoming Cal Poly for a three-game set starting at 3:00 p.m. on Friday. Sunday's series finale has been moved up one hour to 12:00 p.m. to mitigate any potential crossover with the Extravaganza music festival taking place at Harder Stadium.