Big West Conference coaches are predicting that UCSB will pick up where it left off last baseball season, voting the Gauchos as the favorites to win this year’s league championship.
UCSB, which was 13-2 when COVID-19 canceled the rest of last season, won the Big West’s preseason coaches’ poll for the first time in school history.
“We were off to a solid start last year and didn’t get to finish it, but this year’s team is still a work in progress,” Gaucho coach Andrew Checketts said. “We’re still trying to figure out who we’re going to play in certain positions — although I think the first three starters in our pitching rotation are pretty easy to choose.”
The Gauchos, who have gone a combined 58-13 the last two seasons, will be defending their 2019 Big West championship. They will take an eight-game winning streak into next Friday’s season-opening home series against Santa Clara, with a 3 p.m. game on Friday, a noon doubleheader on Saturday, and a 1 p.m. contest on Sunday.
UCSB got 10 of the 11 first-place votes and 119 total points in the coaches’ preseason poll, finishing ahead of Long Beach State (96). UC Irvine placed third (95), followed by Cal Poly (94), and Cal State Fullerton (78).
The Titans had won the preseason poll the previous 12 seasons.
Cal State Northridge, which received the other first-place vote, was sixth in the poll (64), followed by Hawaii (61), UC Davis (39), UC San Diego (33), UC Riverside (29), and Cal State Bakersfield (18).
UCSB, ranked No. 8 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, returns a starting rotation of preseason All-Americans Rodney Boone, Zach Torra and Michael McGreevy. Reliever Conner Roberts is another highly regarded pitcher to return, having posted a win-loss record of 4-0 record last year.
The Gauchos’ team earned run average of 1.86 tied Vanderbilt for best in the nation. But Checketts said his pitchers aren’t yet in midseason form.
“We’re in the middle of our third week (of practice),” he pointed out. “Traditionally, we start our pitchers with a simulated inning in early January, but we weren’t able to do that until the end of January.
“We’ll add an inning each week to that. They threw two innings each last week, and three or four — about 50 to 60 pitches — this week. They should be ready to go 65, maybe 70 pitches next week.”
He expects to use his starters in tandem for each contest during next week’s four-game series against Santa Clara. Four redshirt freshmen — J.D. Callihan, Ryan Harvey, Carter Benbrook, and Cory Lewis — are competing for the Sunday starter’s spot.
“Some of those guys competing for the fourth spot aren’t yet where they were at the end of fall,” Checketts said. “They’ve made some advances in pitch development, but in terms of executing pitches and being in shape pitching-wise, they still need a little more time.
“I think just about everybody but Oregon is in the same situation. They brought guys back before the new year and tested them, and they’ve been going for eight weeks.”
UCSB will play Oregon in a four-game series at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium on March 5 through 7. The Gauchos will also play a non-league series with highly ranked UCLA during their bye week, traveling to Westwood on Friday, May 15 and Sunday, May 16, sandwiching a Saturday game at UCSB.
The Gauchos will have road games at Pepperdine on Feb. 26 and 28, with a home doubleheader against the Waves on Feb. 27.
USF will visit UCSB for a series on Fri., March 12 through Sun., March 14, with a Saturday doubleheader in between.
The Gauchos will open Big West play with a four-game series at Cal State Fullerton, starting March 19 at 5 p.m. All of UCSB’s home games will be played during the day.
“We’ve scheduled 58 games, and usually it’s only 56 — we get four extra games because we’re going to Hawaii,” Checketts said. “I felt that with a lot of the COVID stuff, we should schedule aggressively — overschedule instead of under-schedule — and our administration is on board with that.
“It makes sense because when you start cutting off games because of COVID, you might wind up having half of a season.”
Fans will not be allowed at games for the time being. All home games, and most of those on the road, can be watched on live stream.
“Fall Productions is one of the best streams on the West Coast,” Checketts said of UCSB’s video production service. “We’re pretty fortunate that our fans and families get to watch our games, with three to four cameras, and with the play-by-play we get with Gerry (Fall) and Bob (Brontsema).”