Late Bloomer

May 18, 2000

By Chic Perkins
Santa Barbara News-Press

SANTA BARBARA - The question was posed to UCSB baseball coach Bob Brontsema: "What would you have done without Joey Isaacson this year?"

"I don't know. That's a great question," he answered, pausing to reflect. "Because he's a big reason we were able to solidify our pitching and get back in the (Big West Conference) race. With so many injuries and so many question marks that took place, we needed someone to step up and he's the one guy who did that."

Indeed, the Gauchos have had problems aplenty with their pitching corps this season. They lost both No. 2 starter Rylie Ogle and their No.1 reliever, Chris Quiroz, early in the season that left gaping holes in both the starting rotation and bullpen. With a few other pitchers not living up to expectations, it was a situation where, as UCSB pitching coach Tom Myers put it, "We were literally pulling names out of a hat."

When Isaacson's name was pulled, he delivered with the consistency that wasn't altogether expected of a guy who threw only 3 innings the in 1999.

Going into UCSB's final three-game series of the regular season starting Friday at Cal Poly SLO, Isaacson leads the Gaucho staff in ERA (3.89), and appearances (21). In 44 innings, the senior left-hander has struck out 43 and walked just seven, by far the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the staff.

"The biggest thing you want out of a pitcher is just what he's done," said Brontsema. "When a guy can come in from the bullpen and throw strikes and keep the other team in check, the team gains confidence and develops better expectations, and those things have a snowball effect on the rest of the team.

"In terms of changing the tempo and momentum of the game, (Isaacson's) been a real positive."

Myers described Isaacson as "a blue collar guy," who "puts on his hardhat, does his job, never complains, and always asks, " ‘How can I help the team?' "

Isaacson reflects that attitude in his feelings about this season. "First and foremost, I'd rather the team were in the playoffs by now," he said. "But from my standpoint, it's been wonderful."

To make the playoffs, UCSB will need to sweep Cal Poly this weekend and hope for a magnanimous attitude from the NCAA selection committee in choosing its 64-team field. The Gauchos (26-11 overall, 16-11 in conference) would be the third-place team in the Big West.

One can only hope Isaacson's storybook season doesn't end this weekend. A 1995 graduate of San Marcos High, the lanky lefty is a well-traveled hometown guy who has made good on a return home.

"I've had a pretty rocky career since I started college, bouncing around schools," Isaacson related. "It's been great to finally find a home, and it makes it all the more sweeter it's here at home."

Drafted by San Francisco State as a first baseman, Isaacson redshirted his first year in college, and eventually got cut when the San Francisco coach recruited another first baseman.

Isaacson briefly considered enrolling at Westmont College, but opted for SBCC because of NCAA transfer rules that would have forced him to sit out a year.

"They had a guy who could play first and did a good job, and I ended up being the No. 1 pitcher because of injuries and stuff (during the 1997 season)," Isaacson noted of his Vaquero experience.

Isaacson called then-SBCC coach Warren Dickey "a great person," but he found the baseball program lacking. So Isaacson transferred to Oxnard City College for the 1998 season, but "some dead arm (problems)" limited his playing there.

He made three starts for Oxnard, including a four-hitter he threw against his old SBCC team. "But the next time I threw against them they absolutely crushed me," he said.

In the summer of 1998 Isaacson played for the Santa Barbara Foresters, a semi-pro team, which included Myers as a teammate just before he was hired as UCSB's pitching coach. That Forester team also included Gaucho pitchers Troy Kinto, Matt Dailey and David Uris, and Isaacson's performance that summer prompted him to try out for UCSB in the fall of '98.

"I remember watching him pitch for the Foresters," said Brontsema. "We had so many pitchers coming back then, I didn't know if he would be able to help us."

"It fired me up that I had to try out for the team," Isaacson said. "I went in and had a really good fall."

Brontsema concurred, but Isaacson got only a couple chances to pitch during the 1999 season because sophomore Russell Wirth had emerged as the left-handed specialist out of the pen.

"Getting out there the first time it was like, ‘Wow, I'm playing Division 1 baseball, I always wanted to be here,' " Isaacson said. "I let it get to me a little bit, and my first couple outings were a little rough.

"As it was, Russell was doing great, and I never got that third outing."

Brontsema credited Myers for his work with Isaacson during this past offseason. Both Brontsema and Myers noted that the development of a slider and a better two-seam fastball, and the location of his pitches were the major reasons for Isaacson's dramatic improvement over the '99 season.

"At first Joey didn't have an ‘out' pitch," said Myers. "His slider became his ‘out' pitch. And his fastball has late movement, which makes it all the more effective."

Myers, a fellow left-hander and ex-Gaucho player, had success in raising the expectations of both Isaacson and freshman left-hander Jim Bullard. "I would like to think we were on the same wave-length," he said. "Coincidentally, Joey and Bullard were the most effective pitchers for us out of the bullpen this year.

"They both were a breath of fresh air."

"Coming into this season, " Isaacson began, "I was very, very calm about it. I had a better idea what to expect, I thought I'd get my opportunities, and I thought good things were going to happen."

Good things started to happen in a road game at Sacramento State when Isaacson threw a seven-pitch inning while the Hornets were racking up big numbers against four other Gaucho pitchers.

More solid outings would follow. Then came a three-game home series against Long Beach State, in which Isaacson played a major role in the Gauchos' stunning sweep over the then 16th-ranked 49ers. In Brontsema's previous six seasons as UCSB head coach, the Gauchos were 3-22 against the Beach.

"The way he performed against Long Beach was the height of what he did this year," said Myers. "Then he backed that up with good outings the following week against (first-place) Fullerton."

Brontsema is hoping pro scouts have taken notice.

"I've been talking to (pro) scouts about him," Brontsema said. "He's a left-hander who can throw in the 88-89 mph range, and locating his pitches the way he does, I definitely think he has a future after college."

Brontsema compared Isaacson to Dailey, the ex-Gaucho left-hander drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in '99. "Joey has proven to have better numbers, more command, and is a little more polished. Based on that comparison, I'd say Joey has a chance."

Isaacson wants to continue playing somewhere. "The way this season has gone, for me not to play after this would not be the right way to go out," he said.

No matter what the future holds, Brontsema thinks Isaacson has already proven a point. "It's a great testament to his perseverance," the coach said. "In terms of life skills, that's going to pay off for him... That says a lot about his character."