May 14, 2009

UC Santa Barbara passes their trial by fire...literally

May 14, 2009

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By DAN HUGHES, College Baseball Examiner

Sometimes, in the face of adversity, you find strength you didn't know you had. Sometimes, when it seems that all of the odds are stacked against you, you can dig deep and find that little something extra that can make the difference in being good and being great.

The University of California at Santa Barbara baseball team faced such a situation this past weekend when the Jesusita wildfire - which forced the evacuation of over 30,000 people including UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Brontsema and pitching coach Tom Myers - moved the Gauchos' three-game series with Long Beach State from Santa Barbara to Goodwin Field in Fullerton.

The loss of three home games couldn't have come at a worse time. With no conference tournament in the Big West, teams need to make the most of their regular-season games in order to make the NCAA postseason.

Three home games would now be road games. And what was worse, was that the games were now going to be more like home games for Long Beach State. Goodwin Field in Fullerton is only about 25 miles away from Long Beach, while it's over a two-hour drive from Santa Barbara.

"Goodwin Field always provides great atmosphere," Brontsema says. "There were more LBSU fans there for obvious reasons, but I was pleased and proud of the support that we received from our fan base. A lot of the families were in town for the Mother's Day weekend and they just packed up and changed hotels. In addition, we have a fairly strong alumni group in the Orange County area."

Given the circumstances, no one would have blamed the Gauchos for feeling a little out of sorts going into their condensed series. But Coach Brontsema had his team ready.

"I thought we were very focused," Brontsema says. "We understood the importance of this series and no matter what the circumstances, we had to bring our best effort."

And bring it they did.

In the first game, junior Joe Gardner pitched a complete game two-hit shutout as the Gauchos won 3-0. Gardner (7-1) struck out five and walked only one en route to Big West pitcher of the week honors.

In the second game, the offense carried the day. Led by junior 2B Matt Valaika, the Gauchos won the second game of the doubleheader 14-4.

Valaika was 4-for-4 with a walk, a homer, four runs scored and four RBI. His performance led to Big West player of the week honors, marking the first time that UCSB has swept the weekly awards since 2001.

So what did Brontsema say to his team to get them so fired up despite the circumstances?

"I may have been a little bit more animated in my pre-game discussion with the team than usual," he said. " I think they felt my disregard for the move. When your Friday starter goes out and throws a two hitter in the opening game, it certainly helps people get fired up. We've been riding him all year and he certainly set the tone for us more than any speeches."

After an impressive pair of games on Saturday, it was back to business on Sunday, looking for the sweep. But Long Beach State wasn't going down without a fight.

The 49ers were up 8-4 going into the bottom of the 8th. But in that inning, the Gauchos batted around their lineup and then some as they scored seven runs in the inning en route to the 11-9 victory.

Junior 3B Ryan Cavan was 3-for-5 with three RBI including the eventual game-winner with a two-run double in the 8th.

With the sweep, the Gauchos moved to 27-19 on the year and pulled to .500 in Big West play at 9-9. With the end of the regular season winding down and playoff chances hanging in the balance, winning these games was huge.

"At this point it meant everything," says Brontsema. "A bad weekend knocks us out of any hope for a post season bid. It brought us back to life and we need to take advantage of it. Success these next two weekends should put us strongly on the board for post season recognition."

But to do that, they will have to do it on the road again, against a tough UC Riverside team (29-17, 8-10) and then finish the season at home against arguably the top team in the country in UC Irvine (37-12, 17-1).

Did the Gauchos take anything away from this series that will help them prepare for the last six games of the regular season?

"I certainly hope so," exclaims Brontsema. "More than anything, the confidence that we had earlier in the year when we were ranked, has seemed to re-emerge. Playing on the road for the third straight week in another tough environment and then finishing against the top ranked team in the country will certainly be a test."

But a test that the Gauchos now seem to be ready for.