Christian Kirtley (5) and Zander Darby (12) are two of the big bats returning from last year's UCSB baseball team.
Christian Kirtley (5) and Zander Darby (12) are two of the big bats returning from last year's UCSB baseball team. Credit: Jeff Liang / Noozhawk File Photo


UCSB’s pitching staff ranks 12th in the nation with an earned run average of 2.84 and 27th in strikeouts with 11.0 per game

It might’ve rained on coach Andrew Checketts’ parade, but his band played on.

His UCSB baseball team will begin Big West Conference play on Friday with a 12-3 record even though an atmospheric river washed away six nonleague home games at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.

The Gauchos will take a seven-game winning streak into the stadium when they open a three-game series against Cal State Bakersfield on Friday at 5:05 p.m. The two teams will also play Saturday at 4:05 p.m. and Sunday at 1:05 p.m.

UCSB made up for those rainouts by moving three of its home games against Oregon up to Eugene and replacing its lost home games against Seton Hall by traveling to Cal Poly for a nonleague doubleheader.

The Gauchos, who are ranked No. 10 by Collegiate Baseball News, won all five games.

“I guess we’re young and dumb enough to not let it bother us,” Checketts said with a laugh.

Youth has served UCSB well so far. Four players who came into this season with just eight combined at-bats with the Gauchos — Jonah Sebring (.462), Aaron Parker (.404), Corey Nunez (.353) and Ivan Brethowr (.339) — have carried the offensive load.

It’s created a lineup dilemma for Checketts and associate head coach Donegal Fergus.

Coaches Andrew Checketts, left, and Donegal Fergus have been pulling the strings for a UCSB baseball team which has advanced to each of the last three NCAA Tournaments. (Jeff Liang / Noozhawk File Photo)

“Even our Monday game (a 13-6 win at Loyola Marymount), Ferg and I worked through that lineup four different ways before we settled on something,” he said. “We thought the returners — the guys who’d performed well in the fall — would be carrying us while some of those other guys settled in.

“But it’s been a little bit of the opposite … Those returners haven’t done what we or they had anticipated. You have to make some decisions about how long of a runway do we give them. It’s harder when you’ve got capable players waiting in the wings.”

The veterans do have established resumés.

Senior outfielder Broc Mortensen, who led the Big West with 16 home runs last year, is now just nine short of UCSB’s career record of 42 set by Matt Wilkerson in 2005. Fellow senior outfielder Christian Kirtley hit .300 last year with 11 homers.

Junior second baseman Nick Oakley is coming off a .260 season while catcher John Newman Jr. batted .333.

None of those veterans are higher than .200 this season. LeTrey McCollum, a 6-4 sophomore who was brought in from the outfield to play first base, recently boosted his average from that marker to .222.

Zander Darby, who shared second base with Oakley last season, improved his batting average to .288 earlier this week and has a league-best eight doubles in 15 starts at third base.

“He’s still not where we think he’ll be as a .330, .340 guy and hitting homers, but he’s been solid and he’s starting to heat up now,” Checketts said.

Parker, who has won the starting job at catcher, has hit five home runs to share the Big West lead with Brethowr and two others.

“He’s so strong, it’s just going to be about contact rate,” Checketts said. “If he can put the ball in play, he’s going to get hits and he’s going to hit for power.

“He’s also really settled in at the position. He’s received well and has done a good job of getting strikes for us. He throws well. He’s really turned into a good defender.”

The Gauchos have led the Big West in both homers and stolen bases in each of the last three full seasons. Brethowr, a 6-foot-6 and 240-pound transfer from Arizona State, has put UCSB on pace to make it four in a row. The sophomore outfielder has six stolen bases to go with his five home runs.

“There’s some Aaron Judge comps,” said Checketts, referring to the New York Yankee slugger. “He’s big and runs fast and throws hard and has bat speed and power, so it’s hard to not give him that.

“There are still some moments where you see the lack of experience, but he’s a special talent. The tools are as good as we’ve had during the time I’ve been here. He has the chance to be a high draft pick.”

Sebring, a speedy transfer from Golden West College, has platooned with both Oakley at second base and Santa Rosa JC transfer Jared Sundstrom (.267) in centerfield.

The defense with Darby at third, Nunez at shortstop, and Oakley at second has been stellar. They’ve committed just one error apiece so far this season.

Nunez, a 6-foot-3 true freshman from Torrance High School, has stepped in well for drafted All-American Jordan Sprinkle.

“I keep bringing up the Clay Fisher comp,” Checketts said, referring to the shortstop from his College World Series team of 2016. “He’s got Clay’s glove skills, he’s a little more advanced offensively, and he’s got a little more projection with the body and frame.

“He’s got a high on-base percentage — he’s got bat-to-ball skills. His body has room to get bigger and stronger, and he’s got a good chance of becoming a prospect.”

That defense has helped to back what has consistently rated as one of the best pitching staffs on the West Coast. The Gauchos rank 12th nationally so far this season in team earned run average (2.84) and 27th in strikeouts per nine innings (11.0).

The weekend starting rotation includes junior lefthander Mike Gutierrez (2-1, 2.01 ERA), sophomore righthander Matt Ager (2-1, 3.47), and freshman righthander Reed Mooring (2-0, 3.44). Freshman Tyler Bremner (2-1, 5.06), however, is bidding for the Sunday job after having posted quality starts in back-to-back midweek games.

Another freshman, lefthander Hudson Barrett (1-0, 2 saves, 1.64 ERA), has helped fellow lefthander Carter Benbrook (1-0, 1 save, 2.00) ease back into the role of bullpen stopper. Benbrook, a junior who won All-America honors in 2021, missed last year with an elbow injury.

“Carter has been good,” Checketts said. “He had a hiccup in his first outing of the year but, in his defense, he hadn’t thrown competitively in a year and a half. He’s bounced back and been what we thought.”

Sam Whiting (0-0, 1 save, 5.79) has also recovered from a slow start as UCSB’s closer.

“He’s up to 95 mph with a good slider, and he throws strikes,” Checketts said.

He’s got plenty of other bullpen options, with junior Nick Welch (0 runs and 9 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings) and Alex Schrier (3.68 ERA in 7 1/3 innings) getting the most work.

“It’s nice to have some options,” Checketts said.

Pitching has been the common denominator for a Gaucho team that has advanced to the NCAA Tournament with 40-plus wins in each of the last three full seasons.

UCSB begins the quest for its third Big West title in the last four full seasons on Friday.

“Ready or not, here we come,” Checketts said.