NASHVILLE – UC Santa Barbara's resident go-to man for clutch home runs, Austin Bush, saved the most important big fly of his career for Friday night, blasting a solo shot over the right field fence in the bottom of the 14th inning to give his team a 3-2 walk-off win over three-seed Washington in the first game of the Nashville Regional, hosted by Vanderbilt.
Bush's roundtripper put two-seed UCSB (38-18-1) in the winners bracket of the regional and helped redeem a standout performance from the Gaucho pitching staff, which held the Huskies (32-22) without a hit for the final seven innings of the game and limited them to just two runs over the entirety of the contest.
UCSB starter Shane Bieber got the ball rolling with 8 1/3 solid innings of one-run ball. He handed off to Kyle Nelson with one out on the ninth, and UCSB's relief ace proceeded to rack up a career-high seven strikeouts over four-plus innings. Righty Trevor Bettencourt and lefty Justin Kelly each got four outs without allowing a hit deep in extra innings.
UCSB collectively set a new program record with 17 pitching strikeouts in the four-hour, 45-minute affair at Hawkins Field.
No stranger to huge home runs, Friday night's winner was one of many clutch dingers for Bush. The 6-6 slugger hit a game-tying grand slam at UC Irvine on May 22, smashed his first career walk-off homer against UConn on Mar. 18, and clubbed a key go-ahead home run in the ninth inning at Cal State Bakersfield as a freshman in 2015.
The 14th-inning winner wasn't the first clutch homer of the night for UCSB. After Washington scratched across an unearned run to take its first lead of the game in the 12th inning, junior right fielder Devon Gradford countered by crushing a homer over the high left field wall off UW reliever Greg Minier to extend the contest.
With the win, the Gauchos will face either Vanderbilt or Xavier on Saturday night at 6:05 PDT.
"Shane Bieber gave us a great start and then the guys in the bullpen really did a nice job with clutch pitching," said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. "We found a way to get two big swings. I'm really proud of the guys, they really hung in there. There were a lot of runners in scoring position so those guys really did the heavy lifting for us."
Washington did a fine job in getting runners on base on Friday, but they were not as successful driving those runners in.
The Huskies got the leadoff man on base in five of the first eight innings but struggled all day to come up with a big hit, going 1-27 with runners on and 0-17 with runners in scoring position.
UCSB opened the scoring in the third, with Gradford driving in Ryan Clark with a line single into center field. UW center fielder Jack Meggs made a diving effort on the play and thought he came up with it, but he was ruled to have trapped the ball.
The Gauchos' first lead was short-lived however, with the Huskies plating the tying run in the top of the fourth on a sac fly.
The offense went dry for both teams in the middle innings. Washington starter Noah Bremer was the main reason behind UCSB's midgame offensive lull, as the right-hander retired the final 16 batters he faced in a sterling nine inning, four-hit, one-run outing.
Once UCSB got into the Huskies bullpen, the bats started coming around again, as the Gauchos banged out four hits and scored twice in the final four innings.
Kelly ended up getting the win for UCSB, improving to 2-0 on the year. Alex Nesbitt, who tossed two innings of relief, was tagged with the loss for Washington after allowing the game-winning homer.
The entire Nashville Regional was struck by tragedy when it was announced that Vanderbilt freshman pitcher Donny Everett passed away late Thursday. A moment of honor was held to honor Everett before first pitch on Friday.
"It's any parent or coach's worst nightmare to get that news," said Checketts. "I feel for Coach Corbin, his staff, the players and especially Donny's family. We are thinking about them."