NASHVILLE – Two-seed UC Santa Barbara booked its trip to the Vanderbilt Regional final after holding on for a 5-4 victory on Sunday afternoon in the winner's bracket game against Xavier at Hawkins Field.
The last undefeated team in the Nashville bracket, UCSB (39-18-1) stormed out to a 5-0 lead through 3.5 innings against XU starter Trent Astle. But starting in the bottom of the fourth, the Musketeers' bats started to come alive, plating runs in three straight innings and cutting their deficit to just one in the sixth.
With all the momentum seemingly on XU's side heading into the final third of the game, senior lefty Justin Kelly came in and cemented the win for UCSB.
Kelly entered the game with the tying run on second and one out in the seventh, and proceeded to have a player of the game performance for UCSB. He started off by stranding Rylan Bannon on second with back-to-back strikeouts of Joe Gellenbeck and Andre Jernigan.
That was just the beginning for Kelly, who faced the minimum over his 2 2/3 inning outing to earn his first save of the year. The Bakersfield struck out seven of the eight batters he faced, and the one who didn't strike out was promptly picked off at first. Kelly struck out the side in the ninth, ending the game by getting Bannon to swing over a 2-2 changeup.
"It was the clutch pitching that made all the different today," said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. "Justin Kelly really slammed the door shut on them. He had all three of his pitches working today. The change-up showed up today, which it hasn't really been lately, but that was an excellent and special pitch for him. That's why he started for us earlier in the year, because of that three-pitch mix."
The Gauchos will play in the regional final tomorrow at 2 PM CDT (12 PM PDT) against the winner of tonight's Xavier-Washington elimination game. Should UCSB lose that contest, the two teams will play a winner-take-all game at 8 PM CDT tomorrow. With a victory tomorrow, UCSB will face Louisville in the program's first Super Regional apperance under the current postseason format.
"The guys are really excited to play in that final tomorrow," said Checketts. "They may be emotionally drained after two cliffhanger games, but they're a smart group and will be able to get up with a chance to win the regional."
The first two hitters in UCSB's lineup, center fielder Andrew Calica and shortstop Clay Fisher, combined to go 5-7 and the duo was instrumental in both of the Gauchos' run-scoring rallies. Fisher ended up just a home run short of the cycle and had a team-high three RBIs.
Calica opened the game with a solid base hit back up the middle off Astle, and then Fisher hammered a first-pitch fastball of the high left field wall for a run-scoring triple.
In the fourth, sophomore DH Kyle Plantier and senior third baseman Ryan Clark notched back-to-back singles to lead off the inning. After Calica sacrificed both runners into scoring position, Fisher cashed them in with a line drive double into the left-center field gap to make it 5-0.
UCSB freshman starting pitcher Noah Davis, who earned the win to improve to 6-4, was solid overall in a six-inning outing, allowing four earned and striking out six over six full innings.
He was especially good early on, allowing just one hit his first time through the Xavier lineup. The Musketeers began to get to him in the middle innings however, tallying eight hits and four runs from the fourth to the sixth.
Even then, Davis made big pitches to preserve the lead, stranding a runner on third in both the fifth and sixth innings.
After a shaky start from Astle, who gave up five earned while getting pulled in the fourth, fellow lefty Brad Kirschner settled the game down for XU. Though he allowed hits to the first two batters he faced, Kirschner bounced back to retire eight straight and just one of the final 11 hitters he faced reached base – JJ Muno via a seventh inning hit by pitch.
DH David Morton went 3-4 with a home run and two RBIs to lead the way for XU offensively.
The UCSB-Xavier contest was originally scheduled for Saturday night, but was postponed due to late starts in the other regional games.