UCSB had a chance to make a big baseball statement on Tuesday night, and the Gauchos took full advantage of the opportunity.
Behind the strong pitching of starter James Callahan and reliever Connor Roberts, and timely hitting, UCSB defeated No. 1 UCLA, 8-5, at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
It was the Bruins (11-1) first loss of the season, while the Gauchos improved to 10-2.
“It was huge,” said UCSB left fielder Christian Kirtley, who had a run-scoring double and robbed UCLA’s Garrett Mitchell of a home run with a leaping catch in the seventh inning. Them coming in (as the No. 1 team in the country), it’s exciting and it’s big for us. It just shows that UCSB is real, man, and we’re here to play and we’re here to compete. It’s amazing.”
Kirtley, who is an infielder by trade, hasn’t played that much in left field.
You wouldn’t know it from his outstanding defensive play in the seventh that, had Mitchell’s ball gone over the fence, would have brought the Bruins to within a run at 6-5. Instead, it was the third out of the inning, and Kirtley came into the third-base dugout to a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.
“Oh my gosh, you dream of doing stuff like that,” Kirtley said of his catch. “When you’re in the backyard with your friends it’s like, ‘Hey, throw me a home run, I’m gonna rob it.’ It’s awesome. I’ve been dreaming about that since I was little.”
UCLA came into the game with a microscopic 0.91 team earned run average and a whopping .320 batting average.
But the Gauchos clearly weren’t intimidated.
UCSB opened the scoring in the first inning when Kirtley and Cole Cummings connected on one-out singles, and Marcos Castanon scored Kirtley from third with a ground out to short. It was just the third run UCLA had allowed in the first inning of a game this season. The Bruins had outscored their opponents, 16-2, in the first inning before the Gauchos broke through with a run.
Callahan started for UCSB and pitched well. He allowed four runs in four innings, but only two were earned because of two UCSB errors. Roberts came on in the fifth for Callahan and threw four innings of shutout ball, surrendering only two hits with four strikeouts and no walks along the way. Roberts became the pitcher of record on the winning side when the Gauchos scored four in the fifth, courtesy of four walks and a two-out, two-run single by Mason Marquez that gave UCSB a 6-4 lead.
Roberts used a filthy slider and a terrific changeup mixed with his high-80s fastball to keep UCLA batters off-balance.
“I felt great,” Roberts said. “It was a big game coming in today, but we tried to face it as just play the game of baseball against any other team. It was a good mentality and it was a great game to watch and be a part of.
“We were pumped up (to play UCLA), but we treat every team the same. We’re just playing the game of baseball and it doesn’t matter who’s over there in that dugout, we’re gonna play the same game as we always do.”
Kirtley finished 3-for-4 with a run batted in while catcher Mason Eng was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
UCSB coach Andrew Checketts was especially pleased with Eng, who was primarily a bullpen catcher for the Gauchos last season and at the start of this season.
Eng’s single in the eighth drove in Kyle Johnson and Steele Ledford, with Ledford scoring on an error by Bruins left fielder Kyle Cuellar. It made the score 8-4.
“It’s fun to see him get rewarded,” Checketts said. He doesn’t complain about anything. He just stays positive about everything. His personality shows up on the field and he plays with some energy. It’s fun to see somebody get rewarded for that.”
UCSB heads to Oregon State to play a three-game series beginning Friday night.