Feb. 2, 2004
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - With a potentially explosive offensive and young and powerful pitching staff, the pieces look to be in place for UCSB baseball to climb into the driver's seat of the Big West conference. After a disappointing 25-28 finish in 2003 the Gauchos will turn to the experience of several returning sluggers and the arms of some fresh faces on the mound to post its first winning record since 2001.
Santa Barbara returns five starters on the field including offensive forces Matt Wilkerson and Chris Malec. The Gauchos will also bring back infielders Nate Sutton and Bill Rowe along with outfielders Brian Adams and Matt Emerick. On the mound, UCSB will rely on youngsters like Steve Morlock and newcomers like Nate Holguin. In all, Santa Barbara will carry eleven new players on a squad which is set to face one of the most formidable conference schedules in the west.
Head Coach Bob Brontsema returns a rather inexperienced pitching staff with plenty of young lively arms, which makes the possibilities endless. The losses of the hard-throwing Matt Vasquez and the crafty Sean Thompson will open two starting slots which could be filled by a number of Gaucho hurlers.
"We're losing a lot of innings but our depth will be better this year," Brontsema said. "We don't have anyone who threw over 45 innings [in 2003]. There will be a lot of candidates who can go out and pitch."
Morlock, UCSB's closer in 2003, figures to be one of the main candidates for a weekend starting spot. The right-hander saved nine games for the Gauchos last year while posting a 5.31 ERA in 39 innings pitched.
"We're looking for him to be a huge part of our staff and a potential ace," Bronstema said of Morlock.
The Gauchos are also expecting to turn to junior transfer Nate Holguin and senior James Dayley. Holguin had an impressive fall, according to Brontsema, and looks to be another one of UCSB's weekend starters. The right-hander has good command with a fastball touching between 88-91 miles per hour. A healthy Dayley will be bad news for opponents as the powerful righty has the potential to be very dominating. After a "lights-out" fall ball, the senior can expect a heavy load on the mound in 2004. Senior Ivan Ramirez, who placed himself third on the Gauchos' single season appearance record list with 29 outings in 2003, will return with the possibility of moving out of the bullpen and into a starting role. The deceptive southpaw may play a dual role as a spot-starter and as a heavily utilitzed reliever, according to Brontsema.
"He's going to play a big role one way or another," the coach said.
Sophomore Michael Martin and freshman Brian Tracy are two other Gauchos with a chance to make an impact this season. Martin (2-3, 7.29) made six starts for UCSB in 2003 and tossed the fourth most innings of any hurler on the team (42). Tracy, a red-shirt freshman and son of Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Jim, has a fastball in the 86-89 miles per hour range with a good curveball and change-up.
Juniors Alex McRobbie and 2002 Freshman All-American Eric Posthumus, along with newcomers Loren Fraser, Andy Graham, Andrew Estrada and David Filipiak, will also provide the Gauchos with one of the most reliable bullpens around.
The Gauchos will carry four catchers in 2004 with the hopes that several of them may be able to double as a designated hitter if needed. With a backstop from each class year on the roster, Brontsema will have flexibility behind the plate.
Senior catcher and designated hitter Taylor Vogt will return as the most formidable candidate for innings at either position. The left-handed slugger (.265, 2 HR, 21 RBI) has made great strides defensively and pounded the ball all pre-season, according to Brontsema.
"Whether at DH or behind the plate, Taylor will play a big role for us this year," Bronstema said.
Junior transfer Matt Kalafatis will also battle for innings behind the plate. The strong-armed right-hander has enough pop in his bat to compete for plenty of starts handling the young Gaucho pitching staff.
Sophomore Josh LaGrotta has become one of the best defensive receivers on the squad and will also be looking for more innings. In 2003, the right-hander pounded out three hits in eight at-bats while appearing in eight games.
Freshman Jack Pinkerton, who may also fill in at first base or as a designated hitter, brings a big physical presence that could make an impact right away for Santa Barbara.
UCSB's infield will undoubtedly be the most important component of success in 2004. With returners Bill Rowe, Chris Malec, Nate Sutton, and freshman Chris Valaika rounding it around the horn, the Gauchos will boast a formidable presence up front. "Our infield will be the strength of our club offensively and defensively," Brontsema said.
Malec, a 2002 Freshman-All American at second base, will be rebounding from injury this year and hopes to return to his form of years past. After only playing in 35 games last year, Malec is healthy and coming off a great summer in which he played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League.
The left-handed hitting Sutton, who returns after a breakout year in 2003, will provide leadership in his new role as "one of the guys," according to Bronstema. After posting a .318 average and scoring a team high 42 runs in 2002, the third baseman will be subjected to higher expectations this season.
At first base, Rowe may turn out to be one of the biggest surprises in the Big West conference. Due to injuries to Josh McCanne last year, Rowe saw an unexpected amount of action and gained invaluable experience. In 39 games, the left-handed hitting slugger hit .285 with three home runs and 16 RBI while posting a .974 fielding percentage.
But what has Gaucho fans most revved up is the emergence of Valaika, a freshman shortstop from Valencia, Calif. Valaika, who hit .385 with two home runs last summer as a member of the 2003 USA Junior National Team, is offensively and defensively one of the best players to come through the UCSB baseball program in a long time, Brontsema said. The youngster will be given ample opportunities to showcase his talents alongside Malec, Sutton and Rowe, who should combine to create one of the most potent infield combinations in the conference.
Senior Greg Powers and juniors David Figoni and Matt Stevens will provide solid help at third base and up the middle of the infield. Powers, a shortstop, and Figoni, a backup at either shortstop or second, will create incredible depth for an already formidable infield, according to Brontsema.
Headlined by slugging right fielder Matt Wilkerson, the UCSB outfield returns all seven of its members from 2003 and will create one of the biggest-logjams in the field. Along with Wilkerson, Brontsema has said senior Brian Adams and sophomore Matt Emerick will most likely round out the starting corps in the outfield. However, sophomores Gabe Mann, Chris Caraballo, and C.J. Cook and junior Matt Stevens may also see significant time at any one of the three outfield spots.
Wilkerson is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he hit .270, drove in 30 RBI and slugged four home runs. His 20 career round-trippers are two away from placing him within the top-ten all-time at UCSB. Emerick, who batted .229 as a freshman and Adams (.263, 4 HR) may platoon with Mann, Caraballo, Cook, and Stevens in left field and center.