When UC Davis head coach Rex Peters looked at his baseball team before the season, he didn’t see what his colleagues saw.
The Big West Conference coaches picked the Aggies to finish in a tie for last place in the league with Cal State Northridge, a team that had lost 18 of 21 conference games the year before.
“Day one, before we even threw a pitch this season, I knew this wasn’t a last place team. I felt this was a team that could contend,” Peters said. “You kind of laugh at it, but I know why they picked us last – because we are the new kids on the block, and you have to prove yourself in this conference.”
This year, the Aggies have done that and then some.
With an 11-10 conference record, UC Davis has established that it doesn’t belong anywhere near the bottom of the Big West. And while its playoff chances took a hit this weekend with a 2-1 series loss to No. 11 UC Irvine, the team has left a huge mark on Division I baseball this season in just its first year – playoffs or no playoffs.
Though they haven’t cracked the rankings this season, the Aggies have made a habit of knocking out the nation’s best. They earned a 9-8 record against top-25 competition, including two wins over Stanford, which ranked as high as No. 3 this year. In total, UC Davis went 5-3 against Pacific-10 Conference teams, including a 9-5 victory Tuesday over No. 13 California.
Individually, the Aggies have had plenty of standouts. In the rotation, ace Eddie Gamboa (6-3) entered the weekend third in the Big West with a 2.79 ERA, and led the league with only nine walks allowed. The senior continued his dominance Friday, allowing no earned runs in his 7 1/3 innings in a 3-2 win to lower his ERA to 2.55.
In the bullpen, junior Justin Fitzgerald has a school-record 13 saves on the year and owns the program mark for most career saves at 16.
But it’s not just the headliners.
Junior Saturday starter Brad McAtee is 7-4 this season with a 3.27 ERA. Sophomore UCLA transfer Andy Suiter has flashed brilliance from the pen. On May 3, he struck out five Long Beach State batters, allowing just one hit and no walks in 2 1/3 innings of a 5-4 win.
On offense, UC Davis sports a .322 team batting average, led by sophomore second baseman Ty Kelly and junior catcher Jake Jefferies. Kelly, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, is hitting .404 on the year, and Jefferies, a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench award, is at .394.
But it’s not just the headliners.
Senior outfielder Ryan Royster is batting .351 and leads the team with nine home runs, 58 runs and 13 stolen bases from the leadoff spot. Junior outfielder Ryan Scoma, a transfer from the College of San Mateo, has made a smooth transition to UC Davis, batting .368 with 36 RBI, which is second on the team.
With the breadth of pitching and offensive production, it is no wonder that the Aggies have earned respect in just their first season in the Big West.
“They’re as good as any team we’ve faced this year,” said Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee earlier this year. “You look at their numbers offensively, and to have those in this ballpark with the wind blowing in is amazing.”
“I feel like we have a special group,” Jefferies said. “We play like we have nothing to lose, which we don’t, and that has worked out for us.”
This weekend, UC Davis will travel to face Cal State Northridge, the team with which it was predicted to finish last. The Matadors (23-30, 7-14) will be playing for nothing. The Aggies will be playing for more.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN smells a sweep and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.