Gauchos Grind Out 3-2 Win to Claim Series Opener Over Cal State Fullerton

Shane Bieber (Photo by Eric Isaacs)
Shane Bieber (Photo by Eric Isaacs)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – No. 16 UC Santa Barbara scored a key victory in the pursuit of its first Big West title since 1986, squeaking out a tough-fought 3-2 win over first place Cal Fullerton at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium on Friday afternoon. 

The Gauchos (32-13-1, 10-6 Big West) are now just two games back of the Titans (30-17, 12-4) in the league standings with eight games remaining in the conference schedule. With the win, UCSB has the opportunity to pull even with Cal State Fullerton with victories on Saturday and Sunday.

"More than anything, we just wanted to get back to playing good baseball," said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. "And we did that today. We played well, we pitched well, and put together quality at-bats. 

With both starting pitchers in excellent form, solo home runs were the story early on as JJ Muno's score-opening solo shot in the second was matched by a big fly from Timmy Richards in the fourth.

Richards came through with another run-scoring hit, this time a single, to tie the game in the sixth which nullified an absolute blast over the right field fence from freshman catcher Sam Cohen in the fifth, the first home run of his young career. 

The Gauchos pushed across the game-winning run in the seventh on a one-out dribbler to short with runners on the corners, scoring Josh Adams who had led off the inning with a bloop down the left field line before moving to third on a sac bunt and a base hit from Cohen. 

With a tenuous lead, Checketts didn't hesitate to bring in top reliever Kyle Nelson. UCSB's standout southpaw proceeded to carve apart the CSF lineup with his breaking ball, producing six strikeouts in two innings – five swinging and one looking – to earn his sixth save of the season. 

The lockdown effort made a winner out of Shane Bieber, who improved to 9-3 on the season and moved into a tie for eighth place in UCSB program history with 20 career victories. The Gauchos' Friday ace was in control all afternoon, scattering six hits and walking none while striking out six over seven full. 

He finished especially strong, striking out the side in the seventh. The Laguna Hills, Calif. native received some big time defense behind him, including a web gem from Devon Gradford who sprinted back to his left to make a leaping grab at the warning track in the fifth. 

His counterpart, righty Connor Seabold, allowed three earned while pitching into the seventh. Reliever Miles Chambers, CSF's only other pitcher on the day, was on the mound when Tevin Mitchell had his RBI groundout to go ahead though that run was charged to Seabold, who fell to 6-4 on the year. 

UCSB will look for the series win tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Freshman righty Noah Davis (4-2, 4.55 ERA) will make his first start in three weeks (turf toe) opposite Cal State Fullerton lefty John Gavin (4-2, 2.45).