SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – With UCSB trailing 3-0, junior outfielder Jessica Johnston's grand slam in the bottom of the sixth powered the Gauchos to a 4-3 victory over first place Cal State Fullerton on Friday afternoon.
Johnston finished with four RBIs for the third time in her career after knocking her first ever grand slam past the right field wall. It was her fifth home run of the year, good for the second-highest mark on the team.
"I knew [Johnston] was going to get a hit today just by her approach and her demeanor. I just didn't know it was going to be that kind of a hit," head coach Brie Galicinao said. "She was ready and had been chasing some balls, but she had a great at bat and found a way to deliver."
UCSB (30-25, 10-9) got off to a rocky start in the first game of its final series of the regular season, tallying three errors through the first two innings. Following a scoreless first inning, the Gauchos fell behind in the top of the second by conceding three runs, two of which were unearned.
With one out on the board, Fullerton (32-20, 15-4) junior Shianne Brannan opening the scoring with a solo homer to left field, making it 1-0. After an error and a double, senior Kylie Padilla doubled the Titans' lead off a sac fly by senior Sydney Colenzo.
Already with two outs, another Gaucho error on the next at bat brought home freshman Emily Randall to make it 3-0.
UCSB's defense would tighten up the rest of the way, thanks in large part to the play of junior pitcher Lena Mayer (4-1). After entering the game as a substitute, Mayer gave up just three hits the rest of the way while shutting out a talented Fullerton team that has already clinched the Big West championship.
"Lena came in and did a great job of holding them off," Galicinao said. "Fullerton threatened at the end and she did a good job of staying composed and getting the outs as needed. These last few weeks she's been doing a really good job when coming in."
Still trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the sixth, the Gauchos needed the kind of big finish that has led to a handful of late wins this season. Despite facing one of the conference's top defenses led by star pitcher senior Kelsey Kessler, that's exactly what the home side would get, as it knocked off five of its six hits for the day in the sixth inning alone.
Freshman Genesis Ramirez got things started with a walk after coming on as a pinch hitter. Senior left fielder Kristen Clark then followed with a single to shortstop. Senior Jacqueline Hinojosa would then load the bases on the next at bat with a perfectly placed bunt, managing to keep UCSB without a single out.
That's when Johnston, who was held without a hit to that point, came up with one of the biggest hits of the season for the Gauchos, blasting a line drive homer to right field to put UCSB up 4-3. Fullerton would manage to escape the inning without further damage being done, as the Gauchos left two runners on base.
"Pinch hitting is a tough position, and [Ramirez] came in and had a great at bat," Galicinao said. "Kessler made it pretty challenging for our players today. It was an all-around team effort and our defense found a way towards the end."
Looking to tie the game in the top of the seventh, the Titans managed to two runners on with just one out. With the tying run on third, UCSB's defense put the game to bed, picking up a pop up and a fly out to end the game.
The Gauchos' latest comeback win improves them to 19-5 in games decided by two runs or less. Out of their 30 wins this year, 12 of them have come in games where they were tied or trailing in the sixth inning or later.
Both teams ended the day with six hits apiece. Clark finished with a team-high two hits on a 2-3 day at the plate. Hinojosa, Johnston, freshman Alyssa Diaz and sophomore Melanie Menor all had a single hit.
The Gauchos will close out their 2017 regular season tomorrow on Senior Day as they take on Fullerton for two more games at 1 and 3 p.m. This won't be their final action of the season however, as they will be playing in the postseason NISC Tournament. Games will be announced on Sunday, May 14th.