UCSB catcher making major contributions at the right time, and behind the plate
When UCSB junior catcher Eric Yang heard that his primary competition for the job, Thomas Rowan, was coming back for his senior season this year, he had two ways to go: Feel sorry for himself and display a selfish attitude like a lot of players do who feel entitled; or work to get back the job he had for a while last season before losing it to Rowan.
To anyone who knows Yang, his decision to take the latter came as no surprise.
He has been a team player since arriving at UCSB in the fall of 2016. It’s all paid off this season, as Yang has become one of the best catchers in the nation. His .419 average ranks 15th, nationally, and his defensive work and ability to call pitches is as good as anyone wearing the tools of ignorance on the Division I level.
“Honestly, I think one of the best things that happened to me was losing the (starting) job last year, because it just showed me that nothing is guaranteed, nothing is going to be handed to you,” Yang said. “When T-Row was coming back, I knew it was ultimately going to make us both better. We’re both going to push each other to be the best we can be, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Yang’s work ethic, along with Rowan’s, has not only made them a dangerous tandem in the Gauchos’ lineup, it has also brought them very close together.
They are very good friends, pulling hard for each other at all times. While Yang does most of the catching — and will do so again this weekend when UCSB hosts Stephen F. Austin in a three-game series at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium — Rowan is the Gauchos designated hitter. He’s having a solid season himself with a .293 average, three home runs, eight doubles and 15 runs batted in.
It was thought after last season that Rowan, a former standout at Santa Ynez High, would sign a professional contract and be on his way. It didn’t happen, and UCSB has benefitted greatly this season with having Rowan back with Yang.
They are a strong example of why the Gauchos are ranked as high as No. 19 in the country with a 20-5 record. They are team players who check whatever egos they have at the door of the clubhouse.
“It’s so much better for me that T-Row is back,” Yang said. “I think we’ve both become better because of it. He’s a great teammate.”
When Rowan took over the starting catching job from Yang last season, the junior backstop reminded himself of a message his parents pitched to him when he was very young.
“My parents always told me, ‘It’s never the coach’s fault if you’re not playing, it’s yours,'” Yang recalled. “They told me, ‘You’ve just got to be better.’ They’ve told me that since when I was little. It’s always stuck with me.”
His work in the off-season not only included hitting, Yang also put a heavy emphasis on being the best defensive catcher he could be.
He credits UCSB first-year assistant coach Donegal Fergus for a lot of his growth behind the plate.
“One thing Ferg has emphasized to me is that there’s no one way to do it. There’s a bunch of different ways,” Yang said. “Ferg said, ‘You just have to find what way works for you, and get it done.’ That’s been very beneficial.”
Another part of Yang’s preparation for this season involved his footwork while in the catcher’s crouch.
“I worked on a bunch of different stances to see what different positions work for me, to where I can get in a better position to receive and block,” Yang said. “The one big thing about a ball in the dirt is the anticipation. It’s just a combination of knowing the pitchers and being able to anticipate what some of their pitches might do.”
UCSB’s pitching staff has combined for an impressive 3.58 earned run average this season. Yang has had a lot to do with that.
Whether it’s the trio of lefty starters Ben Brecht, Jack Dashwood and Rodney Boone on the weekends, or freshman sensation Michael McGreevy coming out of the bullpen, Yang has a feel for all of the Gaucho arms.
It’s why UCSB coach Andrew Checketts has entrusted him to call the pitches in most, if not all of the games.
“That part is pretty cool,” Yang said. “Being around the past three years, I have a pretty good sense of what coach Checketts is going to call. I know how he likes to set up the hitters.
“A lot of times when he does give me the pitch, I’m like, ‘That’s what I was going to call, anyway.’ I like to call games. It’s fun.”
Yang’s first chance at impressing Checketts with his pitch-calling came at USC on Feb. 26.
“The game at USC was when Dash was pitching,” Yang recalled. “I think Checketts called pitches for the first batter and then he let me do it the rest of the way. Jack took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of that game, so that just kind of opened it up for me.
“Checketts has been letting me do it ever since.”
UCSB beat USC that night, 2-1.
Yang hit .500 (7-for-14) in last weekend’s series win at Cal State Fullerton to open Big West Conference play.
One of his hits was his second home run of the season in the series opener, which the Gauchos won, 7-6. Behind Yang, Rowan, Tommy Jew, Armani Smith and others in the lineup, UCSB won Friday and Sunday’s games to capture the program’s first three-game series at Fullerton since 2007.
“He’s turned into this complete player,” Checketts said of Yang, who leads the Gauchos with 10 doubles. “Before, he was not a plus-defender, not a plus-offensive player, not a great game caller at that point in terms of taking ownership of the pitching staff.
“He does it all now so well. He’s turned into this complete player through all of his hard work.”
McGreevy, who has an incredible stat line for a freshman pitcher, credits a great deal of his success to Yang’s skill and guidance behind the plate.
“First of all, he’s a phenomenal catcher,” said McGreevy, who has a 1.77 ERA in 35 2/3 innings with 37 strikeouts and only five walks. “He gives a big target and calls a great game. He always knows exactly what to say to me. Coming from him, it means a lot because of how good he is.”
The Gauchos host Stephen F. Austin today at 3 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.