Baseball Preview: UCSB

Cal State Fullerton entered the series last weekend at UC Riverside on an eight game winning streak and in first place in the Big West conference. The Titans left Riverside on a three game losing streak and tied for fourth place in the conference.

With that storyline as the backdrop, Fullerton is in a must win situation against the UCSB Gauchos (17-21, 7-5) at Goodwin Field this weekend if the Titans are going to keep their hopes alive to win the Big West championship for the fourth straight season.

LINEUP

UCSB hasn't played well on the road, going 6-10 away from Caesar Uyesaka Stadium and hadn't won a series on the road this season before taking 2 of 3 at Northridge last weekend. A factor in that problem has been the offense, which has averaged about 5 runs per game on the road, about 2.5 runs per game less than at home. However, UCSB's offense has been much more productive recently both on the road and in Big West conference games.

UCSB struggled to score runs earlier this year with a pretty inexperienced lineup but has score five runs or more in eleven straight conference games, including the final two games at Riverside and all three games against Irvine. After only hitting 14 HR's in their first 26 games, UCSB has hit 13 HR's in 12 conf games. UCSB plays in a hitters park (UCSB's ballpark faces away from the ocean so the wind blows balls out) and their offensive philosophy reflects that. The Gauchos swing away more often than they play little ball with bunting/moving runners over and stealing bases. UCSB only had 26 SAC bunts on the season before having 5 SAC bunts in the final two games of the Northridge series (both were one run games). UCSB has stolen 39 bases on the season (8 in 12 conf games).

UCSB doesn't walk much except for their #3 and #4 hitters, Robbie Blauer and Mike Zuanich, but make contact and put the ball in play (fewest K's in the conference). The only LH hitters in the lineup for UCSB are leadoff hitter Chris Fox and Blauer, which plays to Fullerton's advantage because all three SP's for the Titans are RHP's.

C - Chris McMurray (RH - .287 - 1 - 15 - 6) has started almost every game and is a decent hitter who usually bats 6th and has good speed for a C (2nd on the team in SB's) but his real value to the team is on defense. McMurray is one of the better defensive C's in the conference both at blocking pitches (UCSB has allowed only 20 WP's - best in the conference - and McMurray hasn't allowed a PB) and at throwing out baserunners (31-56 SB's). McMurray was 3-9 in last year's Fullerton series.

1B - Robbie Blauer (LH - .394 - 4 - 32 - 1) hits 3rd and is one of the best hitters in the conference, currently ranking 2nd in the Big West in batting average. Blauer leads the team with 32 RBI's and a .545 SLG %, is a very patient hitter (30 BB's) and has an outstanding .495 OBP. Blauer also is very good at making contact and has only 8 K's for the season. Much like with Jaime Pedroza last weekend, Blauer is the player that the Fullerton coaches will pitch around when they can and won't let beat them. He is also solid defensively. Blauer was 4-12 in last year's series with Fullerton.

2B - Matt Valaika (RH - .239 - 3 - 22 - 2) usually bats 8th and has struggled offensively in his FR season, although he did hit a big HR last Sunday at Northridge. Valaika is in the lineup for his glove and has been very solid defensively, making only 4 E's. The Fullerton coaches are hoping he doesn't wear out the pitching staff like his older brother Chris did last year at UCSB.

SS - Shane Carlson (RH - .220 - 0 - 13 - 1) usually bats 9th and has struggled offensively this year after hitting .286 last year. Carlson has also struggled defensively in switching from 3B to SS, making 13 E's. Carlson was 3-9 in last year's series.

3B - Patrick Rose (RH - .287 - 2 - 10 - 4) wasn't playing much earlier this year but has become a regular during conference play and has been one of better hitters for UCSB, hitting .360 and usually batting 2nd. Decent defensively (5 E's).

LF - Mike Zuanich (RH - .317 - 3 - 30 - 1) bats cleanup and has had plenty of opportunities recently to drive in runs with the way the first three hitters in the lineup have been getting on base. He has also heated up during conference play, hitting .336. Patient hitter (20 BB's) who is one of the few UCSB hitters with a relatively high strike out rate (26 K's).

CF - Chris Fox (LH - .331 - 3 - 21 - 13) is the leadoff hitter and the primary SB threat in the lineup. He is also a good bunter (5 SAC's) who uses his speed to get on base. Fox is another UCSB hitter who has gotten hot during conference play, hitting .373. Very good range in CF.

RF - Mario Lewis (RH - .277 - 6 - 24 - 5) usually bats 7th and has the interesting combination of leading UCSB in both HR's with 6 and SAC bunts with 7. Lewis is yet another hitter who has been much better during conference play, because 5 of his HR's have come in the last 12 games. He is 2nd on the team with 26 K's. Lewis will often be replaced defensively in late innings by Brian Gump (LH - .243 - 0 - 6 - 3). Lewis was 5-10 in last year's series with Fullerton.

DH - Cody Dee (RH - .324 - 2 - 17 - 1) usually bats 5th and only recently became a regular in the lineup after being a part-time player in non-conf games. Matt Anderson (.264 - 2 - 11 - 0) is the backup C and DH, has been getting a decent amount of AB's and might get a start in one of the games.

PITCHING

UCSB has the worst pitching numbers of the six teams that are in the race for the Big West championship, allowing opponents to hit .302 for the season and having a team ERA of 5.44. UCSB also ranks near the bottom of the conference standings in walks allowed (175) and HR's allowed (31). In conference games, it has been more of the same with opponents hitting for a .301 average with 13 HR's and a team ERA of 5.84. UCSB has allowed 5+ runs in 9 of 12 conference games. However, with the way that UCSB has been scoring, the SP's have been doing just enough in allowing four runs or less seven times to win each of those games.

FRI SP - Chuck Huggins (LHP - 6-1, 4.44 ERA, 17 apps, 7 starts, 51 IP, 40 H's, 40 BB's, 40 K's, .223 BA) has been UCSB's most effective starter, throwing six shutout innings against P'dine and also shutting out Riverside for six innings (only allowing one hit) before tiring in the 7th inning. As a starter, Huggins has averaged almost 6 IP per start (40 IP, 30 BB, 28 K, 4.95 ERA) and he is 3-1 in conference games, although his ERA is 6.26. The key for Fullerton with a pitcher who has been this tough to hit but this wild is to obviously be disciplined, take walks and work the pitch count, something that the team didn't do much of at Riverside. Huggins has also been prone to allowing HR's, giving up a team high 7 HR's. Runners have done well against Huggins (9-13 SB's). Because Huggins has been tough on LH hitters, expect Fullerton to go with more RH hitters in the lineup.

SAT SP - Mike Ford (RHP - 2-1, 5.66 ERA, 13 apps, 9 starts, 56 IP, 60 H's, 27 BB's, 46 K's, .287 BA) is the hardest thrower of the three SP's. Ford has been ok in his past two starts, allowing 4 R's to both Irvine and Northridge but that was good enough to keep UCSB in both games and split 6-5 games. Ford was bombed in his prior two starts by Pacific and Riverside, allowing 14 R's in 11 IP. Ford's ERA in conf. games is 7.50 and he is allowing batters to hit .347 in those games. He has done a solid job of holding baserunners (5-9 SB's).

SUN SP - Jeff Braun (LHP - 2-6, 6.14 ERA, 14 apps, 9 starts, 59 IP, 72 H's, 23 BB's, 34 K's, .310 BA) pitched very poorly during non-conf games and pitched his way out of the rotation for a while. However, during conf games it has been a different story. Braun has been UCSB's best SP the past few weeks, going 2-1 with a 3.97 ERA in three starts plus a relief appearance at Riverside during conference play. Last year, Braun pitched well against Fullerton (6 IP, 2 R's) and had a 3.11 ERA in 9 starts, 7 of those in conf games. He has solid control, keeps the ball down (14 of 18 outs last year against Fullerton were groundouts or K's) and holds runners very well (5-12 SB's).

Relievers - UCSB relies heavily on sidearming closer Justin Segal (RHP - 1-3, 3.79, 7 saves, 36 IP, 38 H's, 6 BB's, 31 K's, .279 BA), who has already made 25 appearances (including 8 in 12 conf games) and is UCSB's career leader for appearances. Segal was 2nd team all Big West last year. He has good control (19 BB's in 90 IP over the last two years) and is a ground ball specialist who is tough on RH hitters. Segal has no problem throwing 2-3 innings at a time. After Segal, it is kind of a crapshoot in the bullpen but whoever comes in before Segal would be a RHP because the only LHP's on the staff are Huggins and Braun.

Steve Morlock (RHP - 3-5, 4.38 ERA, 1 save, 10 apps, 8 starts, 49 IP, 70 H's, 13 BB's, 27 K's) was a starter in '04 and '05 before missing '06 with an arm injury. He was a starter this year before missing time with another injury and didn't make an appearance until last weekend, when he pitched in relief on Sat and Sun. The other relief options are likely to be Kyle Brown (RHP - 1-1, 5.87 ERA, 16 apps, 15 IP, 19 H's, 5 BB's, 13 K's, .306 BA), who has appeared in 6 of 12 conf games; Matt Wade (RHP - 1-0, 7.80 ERA, 1 save, 15 IP, 25 H's, 6 BB's, 8 K's, .379 BA); Justin Aspregen (RHP - 0-0, 8.53 ERA, 13 apps, 13 IP, 11 H's, 17 BB's, 14 K's, .239 BA), a hard thrower with control issues; and Bryan Tracy (RHP - 1-2, 4.24 ERA, 13 apps, 6 starts, 40 IP, 44 H's, 28 BB's, 23 K's, .293 BA), who has also struggled with his control and pitched his way out of the rotation.

OUTLOOK

Fullerton's offense had been productive in scoring 6+ runs in 12 of 16 games prior to last week. However, the Titans were only able to manage 9 runs in 4 games last week as the bats have gone cold. Although the numbers say that Fullerton's hitters should be able to get well against UCSB, this is a tricky spot for Fullerton because the Gauchos have been playing well in conference and even in both of the series that they lost to Riverside and Irvine, each series came down to a one run game that was decided in the 9th inning. Going into conference play, this series looked like it would be a sweep for Fullerton with the way that UCSB was playing after going 10-16 during their non-conference schedule. Now, this series looks like a much closer matchup. One thing that is in Fullerton's favor is the pitching depth. The staff ERA for Wes Roemer, Jeff Kaplan and the relievers over the last six weekend series has been 2.15 (the ERA for the Sunday starters is 6.66 during that time) so the Fullerton coaching staff should be able to find somebody to be effective in the Sunday SP role. Another thing that is in Fullerton's favor is where the series is being played - Goodwin Field. UCSB has been swept in their last two series at Fullerton and the Gauchos have been a poor road team this year, failing to get their first series win until last weekend. Fullerton should be able to win at least two games this weekend but it won't be easy the way these two teams are currently playing.