Zach Rodriguez won the starting right-field job earlier this season for the UCSB baseball team.
And he’s not about to give it back.
Rodriguez belted a pair of solo home runs and finished with three hits to lead the Gauchos to a 5-4 win over the UC Davis Aggies on Sunday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
The victory gave UCSB (15-7, 6-2 Big West Conference) a sweep of the four-game conference series.
Afterward, Gaucho coach Andrew Checketts described Rodriguez, a freshman who is hitting .429 (24 of 56), as a hitter who doesn’t have a big hole in his swing.
“He’s tough to pitch to,” Checketts said. “… He’s been really tough. He’s got some mentality and some toughness about him. Since he got his shot, he hasn’t flinched yet.”
Rodriguez’s first home run put the Gauchos in front, 1-0, in the second inning. His second tied the game at 4-all in the bottom of the eighth after the Aggies took the lead with a run in the top of the inning.
It was the second time in the series UCSB trailed going into the bottom of the eighth after UC Davis went ahead in the top of the inning. Checketts has been pleased all season with his team’s offensive performance, and Sunday was no exception.
“Our offense has been really resilient,” he said. “Coach (Matt) Fonteno and coach (Spencer) Erdman have done a really good job with those guys to create some mentality.
“They’ve had to be resilient because the bullpen has been a little bit leaky at times. We’ve given back some leads and they’ve been able to come back and punch back. We saw that at Fullerton even though we didn’t get rewarded. We’ve seen that a lot during the year where they’ve had to come back, and today was another example of that.”
With Sunday’s victory, the Gauchos remained two games behind UC Irvine (8-0 BWC) in the race for the Big West Conference regular-season title.
Winning the title is about the only way any of the teams in the Big West will make it to the postseason, according to Checketts. UCSB’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), which the NCAA uses to determine at-large entries into the postseason national championship tournament, is too low for the Gauchos to get in as an at-large team.
It’s what made Sunday’s win and the series sweep even that much more important.
“It was big,” Checketts said of the weekend. “Who knows what’s going to happen with the standings because it’s really early (in the conference season). But it’s hard to not look at what Irvine has done. We’re trying to keep up.
“In reality, I think it’s a one-bid league (for the postseason) at this point. Nobody’s RPI is going to get better because we’re all going to play each other. I don’t know that I see more than one team getting in. It’s really about who’s going to win the championship to get in.”
Freshman right-hander James Callahan did his part to keep the Gauchos on the heels of the UC Irvine Anteaters by pitching into the sixth inning on Sunday.
Callahan made his first start of the season after five appearances out of the bullpen. He allowed three earned runs on four hits with one strikeout and one walk in 5 ⅓ innings. It was just what UCSB, with its thin bullpen, needed.
“We needed strikes, and he came in and pounded the strike zone,” Checketts said. “… It’s exactly what we needed. We needed someone who could get us deep in the game, we were really thin in the bullpen at that point.”
Callahan gave way to freshman left-hander Carter Benbrook, who made his second appearance of the series.
Benbrook, who didn’t allow an earned run in three innings in Friday’s opener, pitched 2 ⅓ innings on Sunday, during which he allowed one run on two hits with three strikeouts and one walk. Despite giving up a run, Checketts was extremely pleased with Benbrook’s performance.
“I know Carter gave up the run, but he was outstanding for us this weekend,” Checketts said. “He had thrown 40 pitches on Friday, so we knew we couldn’t extend him a ton today.”
After UCSB regained the lead in the eighth on Rodriguez’s home run and Michael Marsh’s sacrifice fly, the Gauchos asked freshman right-hander Ryan Harvey to get the final three outs. Harvey was in the conversation to start the game. He did the next best thing by finishing it with a foul out and a pair of strikeouts. Despite allowing a lead-off single and committing a balk to put the tying run at second base, Harvey beared down and got the job done. His final pitch of the game was 96 mph.
“He was lobbying for the start and said, ‘Hey I’m ready to go, I want to do it,’” Checketts said. “I said to him, ‘I think the last three (outs) are harder than the first three, and we really need somebody to step up at the back end of the bullpen and be a shut-down reliever for us.’
“He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’m ready to go.’”
UCSB takes its four-game winning streak to Hawaii for the start of a four-game Big West Conference series against the Rainbow Warriors on Friday night.