SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For the second time in his career, senior outfielder Joey Epperson delivered a walk-off hit for UC Santa Barbara over a nationally-ranked opponent, giving the Gauchos a 3-2 win over fifteenth-ranked Cal State Fullerton with an RBI single up the middle to break a 2-2 deadlock and score Cameron Newell in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The third walk-off win of the season for UCSB improved the team's record to 21-8, 3-5. The Gauchos had previously scored last minute wins against Pepperdine and Wichita State. Epperson's memorable first career walk-off was a two-run homer to beat then-No. 19 UC Irvine 7-6 on May 5, 2013.
With the loss, the Titans dropped to 18-12, 3-2.
Epperson's game-winning hit was the culmination of a tense ninth inning that pitted the baseball brains of head coaches Andrew Checketts and Rick Vanderhook against one another. After Newell opened up the frame with a leadoff single to welcome Koby Gauna, CSF's first relief pitcher of the day, the strategy showdown was on.
With a runner on first and nobody out, UCSB's senior catcher Jackson Morrow was directed to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole after fouling off the first offering and taking a borderline pitch for a called strike. Despite the two-strike count, the Gauchos decided to stick with the bunt, and Morrow made the gambit worth it by getting the bat on a high fastball and allowing Newell to take second.
Now with a runner on second and one out, Fullerton opted to pitch to Epperson, who entered the weekend with the highest batting average in the country, instead of facing junior shortstop Peter Maris, who had three hits in four at bats to that point. Epperson, a Golden Spikes Award nominee, quickly made the Titans rue that decision by lining an inside fastball back up the middle to easily score the speedy Newell.
Epperson and Maris, who combined to go 5-9 with two of the team's three RBIs on the day, provided the majority of offense on a day in which the Gauchos relied on steady relief pitching and clutch defense to stay in the game after falling behind on two occasions.
Sophomore lefty Domenic Mazza was justly rewarded with the win after allowing just one hit – a fifth inning J.D. Davis single – and striking out five in 5.2 innings of relief. He had entered the game in the most dangerous situation for either team in the fourth inning, as the Titans had scored a run and loaded the bases with just one out against UCSB starter Shane Bieber. Mazza responded by striking out CSF leadoff man Clay Williamson before inducing a harmless inding-enning foulout to third base from designated hitter Tanner Pinkston.
The changeup specialist remained strong throughout his outing, facing just one batter over the minimum over the rest of the day. However, he and Bieber both were assisted on the day by top-level defensive play from their outfielders.
In the top of the second inning, Epperson gunned down Greg Velasquez at home with a perfect one-hop throw after he tried to score on an Austin Diemer base hit.
Redshirt freshman Andrew Calica saved the defensive play of the game for the top of the seventh, making a diving catch of a screaming Matt Chapman line drive and doubling up Williamson, who broke for home on contact and surely would have scored the go-ahead run, at second base.
Cal State Fullerton had opened up one-run leads in both the third and fourth innings, but both times Maris helped erase those advantages. Shortly after the Titans opened up the scoring on a Pinkston RBI single, Maris answered with an RBI single of his own that plated Newell, who had reached on an error to start the inning. Maris came around to score the Gauchos' second run of the day on a Calica RBI groundout after having reached on an infield single.
Titans starter Grahamm Wiest received a no decision on the day despite allowing just one earned run in a commanding eight-inning outing. UCSB's Bieber was sharp to start the game, retiring the first four batters he faced, but allowed multiple hits in his final three innings on the bump before making way for Mazza.
Before the middle game of the series, the Gauchos and Titans concluded Friday's series opener which had been suspended due to darkness. After taking over four hours to play the game's first 10 innings, it took CSF just 15 minutes to score two runs on a Davis double before the two-way player pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the 11th for the win. To read a full recap of the series opener, click here.
UCSB and Cal State Fullerton will conclude their series with a Sunday rubber match, scheduled for a 1:00 p.m. start. Sophomore righty Kenny Chapman, coming off 4.1 shutout innings of relief against Cal Poly, will start for the Gauchos as they seek their first home series win over the Titans since 1985. He will be opposed by righty Phil Bickford, who is 3-1 this season with a 2.02 ERA.