Fire Only Fuels Gaucho Baseball

May 14, 2009

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By John Zant, Santa Barbara Independent

UCSB pitcher Joe Gardner and catcher Marty Mullins climbed onto the roof of their Isla Vista apartment last Thursday night and took in a disheartening sight. A wall of flames was splayed across the nearby mountains, spewing thick smoke into the air.

"It was pretty bad," Gardner said. "I didn't think we'd be able to play on our field."

The Gauchos were scheduled to host Long Beach State in a crucial Big West Conference baseball series. Then the Jesusita Fire flared up and despoiled the air, forcing every game in town to be canceled or relocated.

UCSB coach Bob Brontsema arranged to move the series to the Cal Poly diamond in San Luis Obispo. At least the Gauchos would be closer to home than Long Beach. But the Big West overruled his plans, Brontsema said, and ordered the teams to play at Goodwin Field in Fullerton. Not only was it a short hop from Long Beach, but it was a field where UCSB had gone 0-3 against Cal State Fullerton the previous weekend.

"I was upset," Brontsema said. "We're the home team, but we're not going to be sleeping in our own beds. We're not going to have our Mother's Day celebration in our ballpark. I communicated my feelings to our players."

Already motivated by their precarious position in the Big West standings, the Gauchos went on the road and created their own version of a Santa Barbara fire.

"We had to take care of business," said Gardner, who lit the fire by throwing a two-hit shutout in the opening game of a Saturday doubleheader. "I felt good from the get-go," the strapping 6'5" right-hander said. "I was cruising along, one through nine." It was his second complete game and raised his record to 7-1.

His teammates supplied just enough offense against Long Beach ace Adam Wilk for a 3-0 victory, and in the second game, the Gauchos rapped out 16 hits and won again, 14-4. On Sunday, a sweep appeared doubtful, as the 49ers took an 8-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth. But it was not enough to dampen UCSB's desire.

"We kept up the energy in the dugout," Gardner said. "We knew we could come back." Brontsema noted, "We've put up big innings all year." None was bigger--in importance, if not production--than this one. The Gauchos scored seven runs and held on for an 11-9 victory.

The sweep pulled the Gauchos (9-9 in the Big West and 27-19 overall) within a game of fourth-place Long Beach (10-8) and two behind Cal Poly (11-7) in the standings. They have six games remaining--three on the road against UC Riverside (8-10) this weekend, and a climactic home series May 22-24 against UC Irvine (17-1), the top-ranked team in the nation.

UCSB will be counting on Gardner to set the tone in each series. The junior pitcher spells out the initials "RAG" in the dirt when he takes the mound. "It's for my grandparents, Rosie and Alfred," he explained. "They helped me when I was young. They live in St. Louis. I've always been a Cardinals fan."

Gardner, who says he's learned a lot from UCSB pitching coach Tom Myers, has become too good to remain a Gaucho next year. "I wish I could stay, but it looks like I'm going to be drafted, and I'm ready to go pro," Gardner said. "I'll always remember this year's team. It's a lot of fun to be around."

The Big West bestowed both its weekly baseball awards on UCSB. Gardner was named the Pitcher of the Week, and junior second baseman Matt Valaika (8-13 with nine RBIs in four games, including an earlier victory over Pepperdine) earned recognition as the Player of the Week.

It's just too bad the Gauchos could not have staged those performances at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium with blue skies above and green mountains looming beyond the outfield.