UCSB opens its baseball season today with high expectations … and anxieties.
A COVID-induced, late start to preseason drills has coach Andrew Checketts wondering how ready his Gauchos will be to live up to their No. 8 rating in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll.
Santa Clara will provide their first test in a three-game series beginning today with a 3 p.m. game at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. Saturday’s and Sunday’s games will start at 1 p.m. Spectators will not be allowed this season because of COVID-19 concerns.
“I hope they’re sloppier than we are,” Checketts said with a laugh. “At the end of the fall, we felt really good. We had eight weeks and felt really good on the mound with where we were at.
“But now we’re only four weeks into our preseason and we’ve tried to be careful and cautious and to not push things too much. I like the talent, but we haven’t played super-clean intrasquads.”
His starting pitching is rated among the best in the nation. The rotation of lefthanders Zach Torra (0.36 earned run average last year) and Rodney Boone (2.53), as well as righthander Michael McGreevy (0.99), helped UCSB tie Vanderbilt for best team ERA in the country (1.84).
Torra and Boone have both been selected as preseason All-Americans while McGreevy was one of 55 players named on Thursday to USA Baseball’s Watch List for its Golden Spikes Amateur Player of the Year Award. The trio combined last year for a win-loss record of 7-1 and 96 strikeouts in 74 innings during the coronavirus-abbreviated, 15-game season.
“McGreevy and Torra have both improved significantly,” Checketts said. “Last year, Torra pitched off his fastball a lot, and his velocity is up a tick or two at around 90-92 mph. But his breaking ball has really improved.
“McGreevy has made a big jump in velocity, to 93-95. He’s started to figure out his fastball more and what he wants to do with it.”
Boone, who pitched the final-day gem against Cal Poly that gave UCSB its Big West Conference championship in 2019, is still tuning up his talented left arm.
“It’s probably going to take a couple of starts for him to settle in and get where he wants to be,” Checketts said.
The Gauchos have plenty of candidates for the fourth spot in the rotation. The position will play a more significant role this year in the Big West Conference’s format of four-game weekends.
Righthander Cory Lewis, a 6-foot-5 true freshman from Huntington Beach’s Marina High, “is the frontrunner so far” in the battle with three redshirt freshmen: J.D. Callihan, Ryan Harvey, and Carter Benbrook.
“He’s just out-performed everybody over the fall and spring,” Checketts said. “He throws a lot of strikes and has five pitches. He throws a power knuckleball, and in my 20 years I’ve never seen anybody who throws it as hard and firm as he does. He has really good command over it. It’s almost like it’s a split-finger (fastball).”
All the pitchers will get their opportunities until the starters’ pitch counts get stretched out.
Checketts also has plenty of prospects for “fireman” — an extended reliever who can finish a game. That role has been played to good effect in the past few years by such future Major Leaguers as Greg Mahle and Kyle Nelson. Senior Conner Dand, junior Conner Roberts, and Merced College transfer Clayton Hall have all shown the ability for the job.
Christopher Troye, a junior with the Gauchos’ most explosive fastball, is the leading candidate to close out games.
“He really let it go during the last weekend of the fall and hit 99.5 mph on the radar gun, and had three or four other 99s,” Checketts said. “He touched 98 the other day. He’s not quite as consistent with it as he was at the end of the fall, but he’s still getting into shape.
“The big question is if we can use him four times on the weekend. We’re still working through that. We’ll probably see more closer by committee for the time being.”
Mason Eng, who batted .400 after winning the catcher’s job halfway through last year’s 15-game season, has earned the spot again in a stiff competition that included fellow returnee Gianni Bloom and utility player Christian Kirtley.
“Mason is our best defender and he’s also performed at the plate,” Checketts said. “Gianni calls the best game — Eng is exceptionally bright but Gianni has had a little more experience with it.
“Kirtley is potentially the best hitter of the bunch and he’s made huge strides in converting to the position, but he’s a little dinged up right now.”
The infield returns intact with senior shortstop McClain O’Conner (.325 in 2019), junior second baseman Marcos Castanon (.324 in 2019); sophomore third baseman Cole Cummings, and sophomore first baseman Kyle Johnson. But St. Mary’s transfer Bryce Willits, a corner infielder who redshirted last year with a shoulder injury, and freshmen Jordan Sprinkle and Leo Mosby have also made strong bids for playing time.
“Cummings has been good since we got back,” Checketts said. “He put on some weight and has done a nice job at the plate, and he’s steady over there at third.
“Willits is more dynamic defensively, but his arm is not yet ready for more than one game a weekend on the left side. He can play first base, though. Kyle Johnson has really swung the ball well lately and he’s a plus-first baseman defensively. He makes a really big target over there (at 6-foot-5).”
The outfield is also crowded. Returning regulars Steele Ledford, Jason Willow, Nick Vogt and Kirtley have been joined by Cuesta College transfer Broc Mortensen, a former football star at Ventura High.
“Mortensen continues to play well,” Checketts said. “He’s got some power and hit three home runs in his first few weeks back. He profiles as a right fielder because his throwing arm is pretty big.
“Vogt has also really swung the bat well and he can play a corner spot in the outfield, too. Ledford is probably the best, most experienced center fielder. Willow is the fastest, and he’s in a much better spot physically than he was a year ago.”
Checketts is certain of one thing: He’s going to run a lot of different lineups onto the diamond during the first four weeks of UCSB’s 58-game season.
“There are going to be some moving parts,” he said. “We have some speed and we have some power, too. We have a lot of athletic guys.
“We’re really excited to get going.”