Confident Cal Poly holds off UCSB to set up winner-takes-all showdown today for Big West title
In a season that has produced a number of firsts, some program records and a truckload of wins, the No. 4 UCSB baseball team finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
The Gauchos are in a must-win situation in today’s regular-season finale against rival Cal Poly.
Behind a tremendous pitching performance by reliever Taylor Dollard and a big day at the plate by freshman designated hitter Conagher Sands, the Mustangs beat the Gauchos, 4-3, on Friday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium to set up a winner-take-all game today.
Entering Thursday’s Big West Conference series opener, Cal Poly (28-27, 17-6 conference) was tasked with having to sweep UCSB (44-9, 18-5 Big West) in order to finish as co-conference champions with the Gauchos – which would earn the Mustangs the Big West’s automatic bid for an NCAA Regional.
There is no other way for Cal Poly to make the postseason if it doesn’t sweep.
All UCSB had to do to win the program’s first Big West title since 1986 was win one of the three games. Following the Mustangs’ 3-0 win on Thursday and Friday’s game that saw Sands double home a run and belt a two-run homer, the Gauchos are down to one more chance.
That’s today at 1 p.m. at their home stadium, where they are 26-3 this season.
“It was a good baseball game,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said of Friday’s contest. “It was competitive, exciting, a lot of energy and emotions on both sides of it. Obviously, Dollard did a good job. We haven’t been able to get to him.
“We haven’t been able to crack the code on that deal, but we’ve got a game (today). If you told me six months ago that we’d play for the conference championship at home on the last game of the (regular season), I’d take it.”
Despite winning two straight, the pressure remains squarely on the shoulders of the Mustangs.
UCSB, with its tremendous overall record, is all but assured the program’s fourth postseason appearance in Checketts’ eight seasons. But the Gauchos want more. They want that Big West title that has eluded the program for 33 years.
Cal Poly, as it’s proven in the first two games, is not about to do down without a fight.
“We have been trying to just survive for another day,” said Mustangs coach Larry Lee, who won his 1,000th collegiate game on Thursday in a career that includes 16 years at Cuesta Community College and 17 years at Cal Poly. “We put ourselves in a position to try to take care of business (today), but it’ll be difficult.
“You only have so much pitching, so we’ll see how (today) goes.”
Sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson provided the big blow in Thursday’s game for Cal Poly with a two-run homer in the first. Sands had an RBI double in the third and a two-run homer in the fifth on Friday.
As well as Samuelson and Sands have performed, it’s safe to assume the Mustangs wouldn’t be in the position they’re in going into today’s finale without Dollard.
After retiring all six batters he faced – which included four straight strikeouts – to earn his fourth save of the season on Thursday, the sophomore right-hander came back with six solid innings out of the bullpen on Friday to earn his fifth win without a loss.
Dollard allowed two runs on three hits with three strikeouts and one walk. UCSB got to him for two runs in the fifth on a wild pitch and a run-scoring single by Andrew Martinez to tie the game, 3-3. But Dollard got back on track, retiring 13 of the next 15 Gaucho batters to close out the game.
“I do think that we can feel it and I do think that we are playing with a little swagger,” Dollard said of his team’s chances at a sweep today. “At the same time, Santa Barbara is still a tough team to beat and I do think that we need to keep our foot on the gas and not let up.
“If we let up and give them a chance, it’s only going to hurt us.”
Dollard became the pitcher of record on the winning side after Myles Emmerson singled home Elijah Greene from third in the seventh to give Cal Poly a 4-3 lead. Greene set the table with a one-out triple off UCSB freshman sensation Michael McGreevy, who fell to 5-1 after allowing two runs on five hits with two strikeouts and one walk in four innings.
Dollard’s two-day performance has set Lee up with a fresh bullpen for today’s finale. It’s a group that includes the Mustangs closer, right-hander Michael Clark, who is 6-3 with a 2.20 earned run average in 31 appearances over 651/3 innings.
Clark has not yet pitched in the series.
“Between (Dollard) and Mike Clark, they’re the two guys out of the bullpen who have been steady all year long,” Lee said. “(UCSB) has a right-hand dominant lineup, and Taylor was able to execute his pitches.
“He’s just done well. It’s just what the doctor ordered (Thursday) for two innings, and he comes out today and throws six innings.”
Senior designated hitter Thomas Rowan cracked his team-leading 13th home run of the season to lead off the bottom of the second for UCSB.
It’s the only lead the Gauchos have had over the first two games. Junior lefty Ben Brecht started on the mound for UCSB and pitched into the fifth inning before Checketts relieved him with McGreevy. Brecht entered the game tied for the most wins in the Big West Conference and tops in strikeouts with 96.
He tossed 4 1/3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits with five strikeouts and no walks.
“Based on where he was at last week with the fatigue piece of it and us having some concerns about how long he was going to go, I thought he gave us a good shot,” Checketts said. “He made some competitive pitches and made some pitches with some leverage and gave us a chance.”
Today’s 1 o’clock game at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium is expected to draw a capacity crowd. Folks planning to attend are encouraged to get to the stadium early.