Last week, UCSB baseball coach Andrew Checketts referred to his sophomore backup catcher, Mason Eng, as a “defensive specialist.”
On Saturday in Sacramento, Eng became an offensive specialist when he ripped a double into the left-field corner in the top of the 11th inning that scored the only run of the game in the Gauchos’ 1-0 victory over the Sac State Hornets.
It was Eng’s first run batted in as a member of the UCSB team, and it was his first game-winning hit. Eng appeared in eight games last season and was 1-for-3 with a walk.
“We kind of lucked out,” Checketts said. ”We pinch-ran for Gianni (Bloom), who had a great day behind the plate and in the (batter’s) box. So that brought in Mason late in the game. The guy who was throwing was kind of a split-finger specialist … and Mason was able to fight off some pitches and get something that was elevated and hit it down into the (left-field) corner.
“He put a nice at-bat together.”
The inning got going when sophomore first baseman Kyle Johnson tattooed a ball off the right-field fence for a one-out double. Johnson’s third hit of the game and second double followed Marcos Castanon’s at-bat, where he was robbed of a home run by Hornets left-fielder Michael Smith. After Sac State got the second out of the 11th, Eng came through on the eighth pitch of his at-bat.
“It’s fun to see him get rewarded,” Checketts said. ”He catches in the bullpen and grinds away down there and has to do a lot of the dirty work. It was fun to see him be able to contribute.”
Eng had come into the game for defense in the 10th inning for Bloom, who finished 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles.
“It was,” Checketts said when asked if it was a tough decision to take out Bloom. ”The scoring opportunities were kind of few and far between for both teams, so when we had Gianni in scoring position (in the 10th inning), we felt we needed to go for it at that point.”
Eng’s heroics followed the outstanding pitching of former Santa Ynez High and Cuesta standout Zach Torra, and former SBCC right-hander Conner Roberts.
Torra pitched the first six innings, allowing no runs on three hits with seven strikeouts and three walks. Roberts came on in the seventh and tossed the next five innings, during which he allowed no runs on one hit with eight strikeouts and two walks.
Both were special in their Gaucho debuts.
“Zach was in command all day,” Checketts said. “He had his fastball, curveball, slider working for him and he was able to finish some hitters. He did a nice job with some runners on base. For his first Division I start, I thought he had a lot of poise.
“Conner had a really nice outing today. We had worked him up as a starter going into the weekend, so we were fortunate that he was in shape to be able to go that far.”
UCSB had chances to score in the fourth and 10th innings, but couldn’t push a run across. Santa Barbara had runners at second and third with two outs in the fourth, and the bases loaded with one out in the 10th.
“We had a number of chances to punch through and didn’t, and a lot of times when that happens, teams will fold,” Checketts said. “I was happy that they continued to grind through it and found a way. I think that’s a good sign for the group. Obviously, we’d like to swing the bats better than we have so far.
“I think we will because I think we’re better than that. There are some young guys who are going to take a little bit of time.”
Sophomore right-hander Michael McGreevy is expected to start today’s series finale at Sac State at 1 p.m.
McGreevy was UCSB’s top reliever last season with a 1.94 earned run average in 60.1 innings. McGreevy’s role this season was a big question for Checketts, who seemed to be a bit reluctant, at times, to take his best arm out of the bullpen and turn him into a starter.
UCSB will return home after the game and play its home opener on Monday night against Cal at 5:30 p.m. It will be the first night game ever at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.