UC Santa Barbara entered Baggett Stadium as the top team in the Big West Conference on Friday night and the No. 9 team in the country. However, they ran into a Cal Poly team that brought both shutdown pitching and timely offense to the diamond.
The Mustangs (23-13 5-2 Big West) took the series opener over the Gauchos (25-8-1 5-2 Big West) with a score of 7-0.
As is often the case in the highly competitive head-to-head games between Cal Poly and UCSB, individual players rose to the challenge and proved to be the difference.
On Friday night, that player was Mustangs sophomore starting pitcher Kyle Smith. The southpaw was good for more than 7 innings of exceptional work, allowing only two hits on his way to tying a career-high nine strikeouts.
“I was able to get ahead of the count early. My off-speed and slider were working from the get-go and I was able to have good command over the fastball,” Smith said.
Smith was the victor in one of the conference’s best pitching duels of the 2016 season. Going up against the Big West Conference’s Preseason Pitcher of the Year in UC Santa Barbara’s Shane Bieber, Cal Poly’s ace was able to come up big. The hard-throwing Bieber was no match for Smith, allowing 7 earned runs in his 8 innings of work against the Mustangs.
Junior first baseman Brett Barbier started off the scoring in the first inning with an RBI single up the middle. The early hit also marked the 36th straight game Barbier has reached base safely. Not only is the first baseman batting a scorching .391, but Barbier has an on-base percentage that sits at over .500.
“I am just trying to get on base to help the guys out as much as possible,” Barbier said. “We need runners to get on base to score runs and I have John [Schuknecht] hitting behind me, so I know that if I get one base there is a good chance he will hit me in. I have really just been trying to keep my approach simple.”
The Mustangs tacked on two more runs in the fifth inning after an RBI double from Schuknecht. Cal Poly picked up two more insurance runs in the bottom of the seventh inning when a wild pitch scored sophomore center fielder Josh George and another hit from Schuknecht added one more. Freshman shortstop Kyle Marinconz and George each picked up an RBI in the 8th inning to extend the lead.
One interesting note to Friday’s game was that Schuknecht was the only senior to start for both teams. Of the 20 players to start on both sides, 12 were either freshmen or sophomores. Coming down the stretch of the 2016 season, two of the best team in the Big West Conference find themselves with lineups filled with some of the best underclassman talent in the nation.
“With us, we are more forced to play our freshmen. Now that we are quite a ways into the season you can start to see our young guys understanding the game more and getting through the grind,” head coach Larry Lee said.
The second game of the series gets underway at Baggett Stadium at 6 p.m. on Saturday.