UCSB RIDES STELLAR PERFORMANCE FROM BOONE TO THE BIG WEST TITLE
UCSB’s baseball team needed a big change after losing the first two games of its three-game Big West Conference series to Cal Poly.
It got that change in the form of Rodney Boone’s changeup.
The freshman left-hander delivered his finest performance of the season to lead the Gauchos to the Big West Conference title with a 7-0 win over the Mustangs Saturday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
A stadium-record crowd of 1,417 watched Boone’s masterpiece — which consisted of no runs on five hits with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 8.1 innings. When Boone was taken out by UCSB coach Andrew Checketts with one out in the ninth, he walked off the mound to a thunderous standing ovation after leading the Gauchos to the program’s first Big West title since 1986.
Cal Poly batters knew the changeup was coming most of the time. And yet they had no chance against the best pitch in Boone’s arsenal. He mixed effective fastballs and curveballs to keep the Mustangs honest, but the changeup was his money pitch to a lineup made up mostly of right-handed hitters.
“Rodney had it all going,” said Checketts, who has UCSB in an NCAA Regional for the fourth time in his eight years on the job. “He’s been working really hard. His last three outings weren’t great, but he’s slippery, so even in his not-so-great outings he gives us a chance.
“Rodney was outstanding. He was just what we needed. He didn’t give them a chance. He didn’t give them anything. He was dominant.”
By winning the final game of the series and the regular season, the Gauchos earned the automatic bid from the Big West Conference for the NCAA Regionals. They also eliminated Cal Poly from postseason contention.
“I’m usually at a loss for words and stuff like that. It’s more emotions than anything,” Checketts said. “I’m really happy for our guys and our fans and the people who came out and supported us.
“It was an exciting day with a lot of emotions going on. Our guys played well.”
The Mustangs got one baserunner to third all game.
Their two biggest chances against Boone came in the second, when they had runners at first and second with two outs after back-to-back walks by Boone. But UCSB’s crafty lefty struck out Mustangs second baseman Jack Kuzma to end that threat. Cal Poly’s other chance came in the fourth with runners at first and third with two outs. But Boone got Kuzma out in front on a changeup, and Kuzma, on a half swing, popped out to Boone on the first-base side of the mound to end that threat.
The Mustangs never got a baserunner as far as second after the fourth against Boone and closer Chris Lincoln, who got the final two outs on a strikeout and a grounder to third.
“Coach Checketts gave me a new mindset for this weekend,” Boone said. “I was trying to make the changeup spin before, but today I tried to make it look like a fastball, and it helped a lot.”
Boone ended the regular season as the Gauchos’ only undefeated starting pitcher.
He heads into the postseason with an 8-0 record and a 2.78 earned run average in 15 starts and 81 innings. Ben Brecht was 10-1 and Jack Dashwood was 9-2 as UCSB’s other two weekend starters, and Jorge Arellano finished 4-1 as the Gauchos’ mid-week starter.
Boone was asked if he felt any extra pressure given the magnitude of the game.
“No, absolutely not,” he responded. “We all trust each other so much. They were all behind me, and I wanted to do it for them,” Boone added about his teammates.
It didn’t take UCSB long to get its starter all the run support he would need.
The Gauchos scored two runs in the first inning on an error by Mustangs center fielder Bradlee Beesley and an RBI groundout by Armani Smith. After UCSB leadoff batter McClain O’Connor opened the inning with a single, Andrew Martinez followed with another single to center. The ball got away from Beesley, allowing O’Connor to score from first.
UCSB made it 3-0 in the third on another error by Beesley, who let a single by Smith get under his glove, which allowed Martinez, who had walked, to score from first. The Gauchos added another in the third on a run-scoring single by Tommy Jew to make it 4-0.
O’Connor, Smith and Jew each finished 2-for-4 with a run batted in. Smith has had a remarkable turnaround from last season, when he finished with five home runs, 29 RBIs and a .224 batting average. This season he is hitting .325 with 11 home runs, 45 runs batted in, a team-leading 16 doubles and a team-leading eight triples heading into the postseason.
“I think a lot of that has to do with my teammates,” Smith said of his terrific bounce-back season. “My mom, Andrew Martinez and my teammates are just huge on being positive, because positivity goes a long way, more than people think. Throughout this process, I just kept being positive, and that’s ultimately what happened for me.”
UCSB added two more in the fourth on a run-scoring triple by O’Connor and a sacrifice fly by Martinez for a 6-0 lead.
The Gauchos’ final run came on senior Tevin Mitchell’s second-to-last at-bat at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. Mitchell caught a hanging changeup from Cal Poly reliever Michael Clark in the sixth inning and launched it well over the left-field fence for his fifth home run of the season.
Mitchell also showed what a classy person he is when, in the second inning, he lined a bullet that Mustangs shortstop Connor Gurnick made a good play to catch. Mitchell, who was halfway down the first-base line, applauded Gurnick’s effort. It was a gesture that helped defuse a lot of tension that had built up between the two teams over the first two games.
When UCSB third baseman Jason Willow threw out Cole Cabrera on a grounder to end the game, the Gauchos stormed out of the third-base dugout and began a massive on-field celebration that lasted more than a half hour.
After finishing the regular season with a 45-9 record and a 19-5 mark in the Big West Conference, they had certainly earned the right to cut loose in triumph. UCSB hoisted the conference championship trophy in left field that was presented by athletic director John McCutcheon.
“My career has had a lot of downs and a lot of ups,” Mitchell said. “Today, I’m a little emotional on Senior Day. I love this program, I love coach Checketts, I love Ferg (UCSB hitting coach Donegal Fergus) and I love everyone who’s been a part of this program in the past and the present. For this to be the last game (of the season) at Caesar (Uyesaka Stadium), for us to do this at home, to win the Big West championship, it’s so special.”
UCSB will find out where it’s headed and who it will play in the NCAA Regionals during Monday’s ESPNU selection show at 9 a.m.