Sensational Noriega Leads Gauchos to Second Straight Series Victory

Felisha Noriega (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Felisha Noriega (Photo by Tony Mastres)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos softball team played a full fourteen innings in their Big West doubleheader versus the University of Hawai'i Rainbow Wahine, albeit in a very unconventional split. The Gauchos (17-25, 4-5 Big West) rebounded from yesterday's 3-2 defeat to the Rainbow Wahine by dispatching the visitors 8-0 in a run-rule-shortened first game and earning the series win with a walk-off RBI single from freshman third baseman Maci Fines in the extra-inning rubber match. In addition to this being the Gauchos' second Big West series win and their third of the season overall, UCSB has now won two straight series in which they lost the first game.

Freshman left-fielder Sammy Fabian had a monster day at the plate for the Gauchos, going 5-for-8 to improve her team-leading batting average to .362. Sophomore first baseman Alyssa Diaz saw her season-high hitting streak extend to ten games as she went 2-for-8 with 2 RBIs. Sophomore pitcher Felisha Noriega pitched a total of 11.1 innings across both games, picking up a win while only allowing seven hits, five runs, a walk, and striking out twelve. Senior Lena Mayer earned her first win since February 22 against Dayton with a three-strikeout performance in 2.2 innings of work.

Game 1

The second game of the series and the doubleheader opener was a pitcher's duel in the early going, with Noriega maintaining a no-hitter until the fourth inning, and her opposite number Dana Thomsen recording three scoreless frames to start the game.

It wasn't until the bottom of the fourth inning that the Gauchos began to string together hits. Junior second baseman Sierra Altmeyer opened the inning with a single through the 5-4 hole, a popular area for the UCSB batters to find an opening on the day, and sophomore designated player Genesis Ramirez got on base via a fielder's choice. One out later, freshman centerfielder Rayna Cohen hit a stand-up double to deep center, scoring both Altmeyer and Ramirez to put the home side up 2-0.

While Noriega maintained her dominance in the circle by adding to what was ultimately a nine-strikeout performance, the Gaucho offense continued to produce by extending the lead to 6-0 in the fifth inning with a Diaz two-RBI double to score Fabian and Fines and Altmeyer's two-run home run, her fifth of the season, in the following at-bat.

UCSB reached double-digit hits in the sixth inning after freshman right-fielder Alyssa Lazatin, Fines, and Fabian recorded singles. After Lazatin was tagged out on her way to third after Fabian singled and Diaz struck out, the Gauchos capitalized on a Hawai'i error to score Fines and leave Altmeyer and Fabian at the corners for Ramirez. The Oxnard, Calif. native singled to bring home Fabian and end the game via the run-rule.

Noriega improved to 5-5 on the year, while Thomsen dropped to 12-11.

"Her ball moves and she was using her offspeed. She was doing a great job of mixing up her pitches and when she does that, she's absolutely capable of that performance. She was pretty flawless for so many innings. It's fun to see her be consistent and perform like that," said UCSB head coach Brie Galicinao.

Game 2

Noriega started in the circle for game two of the doubleheader and was once again lights out for the hosts. The sophomore carried another no-hit bid through three innings, and the Gauchos were able to give her early run support this time.

Hawai'i starting pitcher Dominique Martinez struggled out of the gate for the Rainbow Wahine, allowing two hits and suffering the consequences of a fielding error from her shortstop to have the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the second inning. With Cohen, junior shortstop Melanie Menor, and Ramirez aboard, senior catcher Samantha Lujan was walked to put the first run on the board for UCSB. Lazatin then followed that up with an RBI sac fly to score Menor for a two-run opening advantage.

Buoyed by a boisterous group of Hawai'i faithful in the stands, the Rainbow Wahine answered in the top of the fourth inning. In what was only the fourth hit allowed by Noriega across both games, and only the second of game two, catcher Callee Heen took her deep to right center field for a two-run home run to tie the game.

The Gauchos responded with three runs of their own in the fifth inning, with Altmeyer, Ramirez, and Cohen picking up an RBI each to put UCSB ahead 5-2.

Hawai'i then began racking up hits in their comeback attempt, loading the bases with one out in the top of the sixth. Left-fielder Britnee Rossi sent a Noriega pitch to the warning track in right center field for Lazatin and Cohen to track down, but by the time the ball found its way back into the infield, Rossi had picked up three RBIs and the visiting squad had tied the game at five once again.

At this point, Galicinao made a key decision by bringing in Mayer to relieve Noriega. Although she had struggled in previous relief appearances at home this season, Mayer had historically played well against the Rainbow Wahine, picking up a win against them last year in Hawai'i.

After both teams cycled through 1-2-3 innings in the seventh, the game headed to extra innings where the Rainbow Wahine gave the Gauchos a scare by putting two runners on in scoring position with one out after a combination of defensive mistakes and well-executed hitting. Mayer managed to force the remaining two batters to fly and pop out to get out of the top half of the frame unscathed.

Cohen opened the bottom of the eighth inning by reaching first on an error, the second of the game for Hawai'i and the fifth of the doubleheader. After Lujan flew out and Lazatin grounded out with Cohen advancing to second base, Fines stepped up to the plate and hit the game-winning RBI single to empty the dugout and walk off.

Fines is no stranger to being the difference-maker this season when her team needs her the most. This was the third time this season that Fines was involved in a walk-off play for UCSB, the previous two coming in both Gaucho Classic tournaments hosted at Campus Diamond. In the bottom of the eighth inning on February 24 against San Diego in the Gaucho Classic I, Fines was placed on second base and took advantage of a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly from Cohen to reach home and seal a 5-4 win for the Gauchos. A month later in the marathon Gaucho Classic II clash with Seattle, Fines reached on an error, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and took advantage of another error that saw herself and Cohen score the game-tying and winning runs for another 5-4 victory.

The Gauchos reached double digit hits again in the victory, and Lena Mayer earned her first win in nearly two months to improve to 4-8. Martinez took the loss to drop to 1-2 on the season for the Rainbow Wahine.

"Lena has traditionally done well against Hawai'I and she came out and did well again. It can be tough as a pitcher to figure out, but she stayed physically and mentally ready," Galicinao said after the game.

UCSB's pair of victories contributed to a shakeup of the Big West standings table that looked remarkably different at the end of the day than it did at the onset. The Gauchos, sixth in the conference at the conclusion of last night's games, leapfrogged UC Riverside into a potential three-way tie for third place between themselves, Hawai'i, and UC Davis, depending on the result of the Aggies' series finale vs Cal Poly tomorrow afternoon. At the top of the leaderboard, Cal State Fullerton did to Long Beach State what the 49ers did to them in the first game of their series by dealing them their first loss in Big West play. Then, they went one further and stole the series from Long Beach with a walk-off two-RBI double from catcher Julia Valenzuela.

On next week's series vs Long Beach State and how the team will prepare: "There's so much that everyone is working on individually and as a team, so there's plenty to preoccupy us as is. The offense is capable of putting up hits, but just the fact that [the team's offensive outburst] is something that happened this weekend instead of something that happened in February, that's definitely something that the team can hang their hats on," remarked Galicinao.

Asked about their comeback tendencies after winning their second straight come-from-behind series, Noriega said that these past two series show that her teammates are "fighters, they don't give up, and they keep pushing."

The Gauchos' series against the #18 Long Beach State 49ers (33-9, 7-2 Big West) kicks off with a Saturday doubleheader, with first pitches at 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. at Campus Diamond. The best-of-three concludes on Sunday at 1:00 p.m.