UCSB’s College World Series baseball team of 2016 remains the fan favorite four years after its magical run to Omaha.
Nine of the 12 players recently selected to the Gauchos’ All-Decade Team in a social-media poll were on the Gaucho squad that provided college baseball one of the most dramatic moments in its history.
“They picked our entire College World Series infield and catcher,” noted coach Andrew Checketts, “but I suppose that was when the fans watched us the most.”
The 2016 team punched its ticket to Omaha by winning the NCAA Super Regional at Louisville, 4-3, on freshman Sam Cohen’s pinch-hit, grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
UCSB fans didn’t get the chance to pick the pinch-hitter of the decade, although Checketts said that honor actually would have been more deserved by Cohen’s teammate, Billy Fredrick. Cohen didn’t make the All-Big West Conference team until the next year.
“I think that grand slam made Sam something like 1-for-12 in pinch hits that season — he just had the big one at the right time,” he said with a laugh. “But Billy was something like .450 as a pinch-hitter. We used to joke that whenever we needed a base runner, we’d send Billy up to pinch-hit.”
Justin Jacome, UCSB’s director of baseball operations, conducted the survey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. He admitted that the survey did stir some controversy.
“We tried to get the point across that it wouldn’t necessarily be the best team of players — we could’ve looked at the statistics and done that ourselves,” said Jacome, an All-Big West pitcher on the Gauchos’ 2015 team. “It was about which players’ were the fans’ favorites.”
Several former Gauchos lost the vote at their positions despite having advanced to the top levels of Minor League Baseball. The All-Decade Team does include two pitchers, Shane Bieber and Dillon Tate, who are now in Major League Baseball.
Bieber, the ace of the UCSB’s 2016 team, leads the big leagues in strikeouts with 54. His record of 4-0 with the Cleveland Indians has him tied for most wins in the majors and his ERA of 1.30 is third-best. Tate, meanwhile, made his season debut with Baltimore on Monday and allowed just one hit over 2 1/3 innings.
Here is the All-Decade Team with their final UCSB season in parenthesis:
STARTING PITCHERS — Bieber (2016), Tate (2015), and Noah Davis (2018).
Those missing the cut included 2019 All-American Jack Dashwood, as well as all-leaguers Ben Brecht (2019), Stevie Ledesma (2018), Domenic Mazza (2015), Jacome (2015), Austin Pettibone (2013), Andrew Vasquez (2012), Matt Vedo (2012), and Bryce Uhrig (2011).
“Bieber is a Cy Young candidate right now,” Checketts said. “I saw Tate pitch the other night and he looked great except for one pitch (a home run hit by Cavan Biggio). He looked more like when he was here when he was letting it rip.
“Noah was our Saturday guy in 2016 but he got dinged up after that.”
RELIEF PITCHER — Kyle Nelson (2017).
He was the iron man of the 2016 bullpen, making 33 appearances — second-most in school history — while stringing together a school-record 23 2/3 scoreless innings. Nelson, who was placed this summer on the Cleveland Indians’ reserve squad, beat out another iron man. Greg Mahle (2014) made it to the majors with the Los Angeles Angels in 2016 and is still on their minor-league roster.
“I thought Nelson would have already made it with the Indians,” Checketts said. “He’s put up video-game numbers in the minors (13-7, 2.07 ERA, 17 saves and 176 strikeouts in 122 innings).”
CATCHER — Dempsey Grover (2017).
He beat out several others who received higher All-Big West recognition including All-American Eric Yang, the league’s Field Player of the year in 2019, as well as Thomas Rowan (2019), Campbell Wear (2015), and Jackson Morrow (2013).
“The fans watched Dempsey catch a lot in the playoffs, and he was clearly a good player who did a great job,” Checketts said. “Eric Yang was better from a statistical standpoint (.368), but it’s a fan vote and not a stat vote. I’d actually take any of those catchers on the list. They were all pretty special.”
FIRST BASE —Austin Bush (2017).
Bush hit 11 home runs in 2016, which included the walk-off blow to beat Washington in the 14th inning of UCSB’s Regional opener. He added a school-record 20 more in 2017. He beat out his two predecessors, Tyler Kuresa (2014) and Dalton Kelly (2015). Kelly has lasted the longest in pro ball, having played at Triple-A last year for Tampa Bay.
“Kelly kept getting injured and just never was able to really put a full season together here,” Checketts said. “Austin put up big numbers here and hit some of those magical homers in the regionals that got us to the World Series. His pro career was just a little shorter than most of us expected.”
SECOND BASE — J.J. Muno (2017).
He was one of the top hitters — as well as leaders — of UCSB’s College World Series team. He beat out such former all-leaguers as Andrew Martinez (2019), Woody Woodward (2012), and Sean Williams (2011).
“He performed, and he was the heart and soul of that 2016 team,” Checketts said. “Go back and watch the highlights and you’ll see J.J. in the middle of everything, leading every break and providing the energy. He was running that club.”
THIRD BASE — Ryan Clark (2016).
The highlight reel also bolstered Clark’s case in beating out such former all-leaguers as Peter Maris (2015), who’s on the cusp of making the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants.
“Peter could do more things offensively, although Ryan did hit in his last year here,” Checketts said. “They were both high school shortstops and plus-defenders at third for us.
“But Ryan was on that World Series stage. He made a diving double-play against Fullerton that helped us win that year and a bunch of highlight plays in the postseason.”
SHORTSTOP — Clay Fisher (2018).
Fisher, like Clark, was a web-gem master on UCSB’s World Series team. By 2018, his bat had improved enough (.294) to get him on the All-Big West first team. He beat out Brandon Trinkwon (2013), who played four seasons in the Dodgers farm system, and Steven Moon (2011).
“Fisher is the best defender that we’ve had in the last nine years,” Checketts said. “He’s in the Baltimore organization, and now that he’s finally healthy, his bat will hopefully catch up to his defense. He’s a big-league defender.”
OUTFIELD — Tommy Jew (2019), Cameron Newell (2015), Tevin Mitchell (2019).
Mitchell, a popular figure on UCSB’s last regional team, created perhaps the biggest controversy in the poll by beating out teammate Armani Smith (.323, 11 home runs), as well as Andrew Calica (2015), Joey Epperson (2014), Brett Vertigan (2012), and Mark Haddow (2011).
“Tommy Jew and Cameron Newell, who was the conference player of the year, were pretty consistent over two or three years, while Tevin put it together in his last season,” Checketts said. “They actually should’ve picked six outfielders. It’s pretty congested out there with really good players.”
A designated hitter or utility position would’ve been nice, too, he added. Robbie Nesovic (2015), who pitched and played first base as well as DH, was a three-time all-leaguer. Rowan, who mostly DHed in 2019 while backing up Yang at catcher, hit .327 with a team-best 13 homers.
“It was fun to see all the different comments, why people voted for one guy over another,” Jacome said.
It was done, after all, just for fun.