If you want to smile or even have a good laugh at a UCSB baseball game, try hanging around sophomore Christian Kirtley for a few minutes.
His sense of humor and personality is certainly a hit with many.
Kirtley is extremely outgoing and fun to be around, but Gaucho coach Andrew Checketts isn’t looking for fun or a good time when it comes to filling his team’s vacancy at catcher that was made when junior Eric Yang went in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball draft last June.
Along with his vibrant personality and quick wit, Kirtley is also a tremendous athlete — which is why Checketts and his coaching staff felt comfortable when they asked him to do something he’s never done before: Don the tools of ignorance and get behind the plate.
Kirtley is an infielder by trade. He’s never caught one pitch in a game, but that may be changing soon.
“My biggest thing that I had to learn and work on was the throwdowns (to second base),” he said. “I’m a relatively tough guy, so blocking (the ball) is mostly mentality, get in front of it, do your thing, and that kind of came naturally.
“I was an infielder before, so the receiving part also came kind of naturally. But the throws, I’ve never really had a well-documented good arm, so it’s been the throws that have thrown me off. Fortunately, I think I’ve really improved on that, and I’m glad. We’ve been working on it. The arm feels good and the throws have been really good, so we’re ready to roll.”
It’s a welcomed chance for Kirtley, who played sparringly last season in the infield as a freshman.
“To be quite honest, I was maybe an average defender in the infield,” he said. “So when they asked me to catch, it was, ‘Heck yeah,’ you know what I’m saying. It’s my best shot to make it (in the starting lineup), and they’re looking for a catcher, so I’m up for the task.
“I’m a baseball player before anything. I’m not a third baseman. I’m not a second baseman, I’m a baseball player. So if they ask me to be somewhere, I’ll be there.”
Kirtly said it was quite a big learning curve when he first put on a catcher’s glove to try to catch a curve.
“At first, it was kind of rocky, stiff, just unfamiliar,” he said. “But right now, I’m getting into my groove and I’m getting into a rhythm and I think I look pretty good right now. It’s going pretty well.”
Things went extremely well for the Gauchos last season, when the program advanced to its fourth NCAA Regional in Checketts’ eight seasons on the job.
Kirtley says he and his teammates are excited to get things going next month when they open the season at Sacramento State before coming home on Feb. 17 to play Cal, in what will be the first regular-season night game in the history of Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
“I can’t wait,” Kirtley said. “We’re going to be good again this year. Personally, I didn’t put up the numbers I wanted to last year, so here we go, second round, I’m ready to go. I’m super excited to get going, and so are the guys.”
While last season’s UCSB offense enjoyed its best season under Checketts with a team batting average of .296 to go along with 66 home runs, Kirtley believes the best part of this season’s team will be its pitching.
UCSB lost two of its three weekend starters — Ben Brecht and Jack Dashwood — from last season, but the Gauchos have Sunday starter Rodney Boone, who is expected to become the ace of the staff as the Friday starter.
UCSB also has the talented right arm of sophomore Michael McGreevy, who was last season’s setup man and sometimes closer. McGreevy, who posted a 1.94 earned run average with 53 strikeouts in 60 ⅓ innings, could be a starter.
That, according to Checketts, is still to be determined. As for Kirtley, he likes what he sees from the potential starting rotation and the bullpen.
“Personally, I would say our pitching staff is our strongest suit right now,” he said. “Our arms are good. We’re really deep. We’ve got good starters, we’ve got really good depth in the pen. We’ve got some guys who can bring it. We’ve got some guys who have stuff.
“We’ve got some guys who can get us out of jams. We’ve got some guys who can be long-relief guys, so we’ve got it all. As far as pitching goes, I think we’re ready.”
Kirtley needed to put on some weight in order to be a stronger catcher. It wasn’t easy considering a not-so-favorable medical finding that surfaced during the summer.
“I got diagnosed with diabetes this past summer, and I was weighing in at about 155,” he admitted. “I knew I had to gain some weight one way or another, and here I am with some more weight on.
“It threw me back. But one step back, two steps forward baby. That’s how I took it. Let’s go.”
UCSB fans will have a chance to see the team under the lights at this Friday’s alumni game at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, which begins at 5:30 p.m.
The alums will be managed by former UCSB standout and current Cleveland Indians All-Star pitcher Shane Bieber. It’ll be another opportunity for the affable Kirtley to impress Checketts with his work behind the plate, and get closer to being an every-day starter — something he missed out on last season as an infielder.
“I started riding the pine about halfway through the year last year, and I’m looking to get that chance behind the dish this year,” he said. “We’re rolling. We’re ready.”