Improved offense, strong pitching lift Gauchos into top 10

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              FILE - In this June 17, 2016, file photo, UC Santa Barbara NCAA college baseball coach Andrew Checketts speaks during a coaches' news conference at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., ahead of the College World Series. UC Santa Barbara, which had two straight losing seasons after reaching the College World Series in 2016, has won nine straight after sweeping nationally ranked UC Irvine. The Gauchos are 27-5 overall, 5-1 in the Big West and ranked in the top 10 this week.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
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It was only three years ago UC Santa Barbara was in the College World Series, Andrew Checketts was one of the hottest coaches in the country and the Gauchos had signed a recruiting class ranked in the top 10.

Two straight losing seasons followed, with the Gauchos in the bottom half of Division I in most statistical categories and beset by injuries.

UCSB re-emerged this past weekend by posting a three-game sweep of UC Irvine, an accomplishment that vaulted the Gauchos (27-5) as high as No. 7 in the major polls Monday. The Big West leaders have won nine in a row.

“Some guys we thought might be stars a little earlier in their career took a little longer to develop for various reasons,” Checketts said. “It all came together at the same time, and it ends up being a pretty good ballclub.”

Even though there have been lots of moving parts, the offense has been more productive and the pitching excellent.

Checketts hired two new assistants, bringing in Washington hitting coach Donegal Fergus as associate head coach and Saint Mary’s Matt Fonteno as recruiting coordinator and Fergus’ aide on offense.

“I can’t claim any of the offensive glory,” Checketts, the pitching coach, said with a laugh. “They’ve made a big difference in our offense and the approach and confidence of the guys. It’s been fun to watch.”

The team batting average is up 24 points to .289, scoring has gone from 5.2 runs per game to 7.3 and the Gauchos are sixth in the nation with a .495 slugging percentage, up more than 100 points from a year ago.

Eric Yang, who batted. 244 as a sophomore, leads the team at .393 and is one of the top catchers on the West Coast. Tevin Mitchell, who played second base and batted low in the order last year, starts in left field and bats leadoff with a .418 on-base percentage and 16 steals. Armani Smith has six triples and is slugging .659.

The Gauchos’ biggest concern has been in the infield. Shortstop Marcos Castanon, one of their top offensive players, has been out since the second game with a pulled hamstring and might not return for two weeks. UCSB has had four different shortstops, with McClain O’Connor locking down the job the last two weeks.

The all-lefty weekend rotation of Ben Brecht, Jack Dashwood and Rodney Boone head a staff that’s fourth nationally with a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 13th with a 3.20 ERA. Chris Lincoln, who combines an upper 90s fastball with a slider, has eight saves.

Even though the Gauchos’ .844 winning percentage leads the nation, Checketts isn’t making plans to play at home in the NCAA Tournament because the Big West is 13th in conference RPI. UCSB hosted in 2015 and went two games and out, and it went to the CWS the next year after playing its regional and super regional on the road.

“In order to stay up in that hosting range, it’s going to be pretty challenging,” Checketts said. “Almost have to play perfect.”

IN THE POLLS

UCLA (27-6), which swept a three-game series against top-10 East Carolina, remains the consensus No. 1 team. Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball newspaper each rate Stanford (24-5) and Mississippi State (31-6) Nos. 2 and 3. DIBaseball.com ranks Oregon State (25-8-1) second with Mississippi State third.

LOTS OF POKES

Oklahoma State set a Big 12 record by hitting 12 home runs in a 27-6 win over Kansas on Friday. Christian Funk and Trevor Boone homered three times apiece, and the Cowboys went deep at least once against each of the Jayhawks‘ six pitchers. The Jayhawks ended up taking two of three in the series.

LOTS OF GOOSE EGGS

Tennessee posted its nation-leading seventh and eighth shutouts in the first two games against Georgia, which was ranked as high as No. 2 last week. The Volunteers hadn’t held an opponent scoreless in consecutive SEC games since 1967.

BILLIKEN BEAUTY

Cody Luther pitched Saint Louis’ first nine-inning no-hitter since 1961 in the first game of a doubleheader against St. Bonaventure on Saturday. The senior struck out a career-high 11 and walked two in the Billikens’ 5-0 win.

DIRTBAGS FIRE COACH

Long Beach State (7-27) took two of three from Cal State Northridge after firing ninth-year coach Troy Buckley on Thursday. Associate head coach Greg Bergeron and pitching coach Dan Ricabal are sharing the head coaching duties the rest of the season. Buckley was 255-205-1 with NCAA Tournament appearances in 2014, ’15 and ’17.

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