SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – As most of the country is embraced by blankets of winter precipitation a match-up of lurking heavyweights is set to ensue as the No. 20 Oregon Ducks (8-1) fly south for a battle with the No. 21 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (7-1).
The Ducks ride in on a six-game winning streak, fresh off a weekend sweep of the New Mexico State Aggies in which they outscored the Aggies 42-14 and an 8-2 mid-week win over the Portland Pilots. The Ducks have an RPI of 86 with a 206 strength of schedule coming off a season that ended as a regional runner-up to the eventual National Champion Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Gauchos opened the season with six-straight wins that began with a sweep of the BYU Cougars before snagging the first two games against the Kentucky Wildcats before dropping game three. UCSB looks to start another winning streak and build on a mid-week 6-4 win at the Pepperdine Waves as the Gauchos look to get off the bubble with a 55 RPI and a 127 strength of schedule.
A lot of attention is being paid to UCSB’s Friday night starter Dillon Tate not only because he’s the guy with the electric arm with a power fastball, but also because the junior can attack hitters with an assortment of off-speed pitches. Head coach Andrew Checketts notes that Tate’s stuff, “has velocity and arm-side run to go with a wipe-out slider and a swing and miss changeup.”
Tate (2-0) has played a major role in the Gauchos hot start firing 13.2 scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts against four walks while holding opponents to a .152 AVG. The closer turned starter has allowed only seven hits on the season while his four-pitch mix keeps hitters off-balance and runs off the board.
Chase-ing The Crown
Ducks’ senior Shaun Chase finished 2014 with 14 homers and with 2014 NCBWA Player of Year AJ Reed out of the way, may have an open door to lead the nation in homers. The power-hitting catcher has hit the ball six times this season, four of which have been for extra bases and two of those left the playing field. This stat shouldn’t surprise anyone who realizes that more than half of the senior’s hits in 2014 were extra-base hits.
In his career, Chase hits a homer every 16.2 at bats and hit for a .352 isolated power average last season. Hitting in the clean-up spot, Chase will enjoy some lineup protection from second baseman Mitchell Tolman who manages to find the gaps with some power at times. The junior just drove in six runs in the mid-week win with a 3-for-5 effort helping him to his .379 average and 12 RBI on the young season.
Up And Running
Checketts’ runs an aggressive style of offense at UCSB that will show up in a pile of stolen bases and so far this year the Gauchos have snagged 14 bases on 18 attempts. Dalton Kelly (Jr., 1B) and Cameron Newell (Sr., LF) lead the team with three steals each while lead-off man Andrew Calica (So., CF) has two of his own.
However, Checketts may indeed be repeating what we learned with an assistant under current Oregon Ducks’ head coach George Horton whose aggressive style has lead the Ducks to 17 steals on 21 attempts led by their own lead-off man Matt Eureste (Jr., 3B) with five.
The table-setters for both squads are effectively filling their roles as Eureste is hitting .400 with a .488 OBA with 10 runs scored to go along with his base-thieving skills. Calica is hitting .429 with a .600 OBA with eight runs scored while drawing a walk on more than a quarter of his at bats (8-for28).
Duo Of Necessity
Oregon’s sophomore starter Cole Irvin is easing his way back into a full workload after coming off Tommy John surgery with an expert medically structured program that involves a pitch count. In the southpaw’s two starts this season he has gone four and three innings having allowed an earned run with five strike outs and a walk.
This creates the necessary need for a solid, sharp long reliever and the Ducks just happen to have last week’s Pac 12 Pitcher of the Week Connor Harber. The junior has the ability to be a starter, and probably will be once Irvin can handle a full workload. For now, the righty enters the Friday night game once Irvin has hit his pitch count. The results have been amazing as he’s opened the season 2-0 with 11 scoreless innings pitched with 12 strikeouts against two walks with a 0.61 OBA.
Keeping It Low
The UCSB pitching keeps getting better, starting the year at a 1.38 team ERA. Checketts has seen his teams ERA drop every year he has coached the Gauchos. With throwers like Tate and Shane Bieber (So., RHP) at the top of the rotation it is certain to keep improving.
Bieber (2-0) has a 1.12 ERA with 14 strikeouts over 16 innings of work while opponents are hitting only .218 against the righty. Tate’s move out of the closer role required someone else to step into the role and righty James Carter has stepped up to earn three saves, fanning eight hitters over 6.1 innings of work while allowing .217 OBA without surrendering an earned run.
The Gauchos don’t want a repeat of 2014 when their hot start at 18-3 fizzled once conference play began and they finished at 34-17 overall and were on the outside looking in when the field of 64 was announced. However, continuing this solid start against a true top team in the nation will help keep the RPI in the good.
Horton wants the Ducks in the College World Series and will push his squad to avoid the disappointment it ended last season with and the experience that can be gained in a series win over a quality team like UCSB can go a long way once the post-season arrives.