The beneficiary of a 17-game winning streak earlier this season, Cuesta College hasn’t had to play must-win baseball yet.
The Cougars ran into a team playing for its playoff life Saturday, and after their most lopsided loss of the season, they might soon know what it’s like to be facing elimination, too.
Needing a win to stay alive for a conference title, Santa Barbara City College amassed 20 hits and cruised to a 17-5 victory at Cuesta, which finds itself in a three-team cluster in the standings and has lost seven of the past 10 games heading into the final week of the season.
“When we were on that win streak, it seemed like everything went our way,” Cougars sophomore shortstop Josh Miller said. “So, now, I think it’s tough to get out of, but we just have to stay confident. We know we’re a good team.”
Cuesta established conference dominance by winning nine of its first 10 Western State Conference-North games.
The Cougars (22-11, 11-6 WSC-N) got to that point with solid starting pitching, led by former San Luis Obispo High standouts David Murillo and Jordan Goldsmith, as well as Carson Aprato from Santa Ana’s Foothill — all sophomores.
Since then, the starting pitchers and the defense behind them have not been as consistent, Cuesta head coach Bob Miller said, and the Cougars are nearing being in danger of missing the playoffs despite holding a one-game lead for first place.
“We need to stay with what got us here, and that was the pitching, the starting pitching,” Miller said. “The pitching and defense were the things we spoke about previously that were really the strengths of the club, and they haven’t been there for us on a day-in, day-out basis in the last 13-14 games.”
Goldsmith was roughed up for nine hits and charged with eight runs, three earned, in only 2 2⁄3 innings Saturday. Goldsmith, who’s made a verbal commitment to play for Division II UC San Diego next season, walked two and struck out two.
Goldsmith and Aprato combined to pitch fewer than a dozen innings last season. It might seem logical that the duo could be hitting a wall after combining for nearly 100 innings this season.
Not so, said Bob Miller.
“Jordan, he doesn’t have 50 innings going into today, so I don’t think that’s a sign of fatigue,” Miller said. “The thing that he did today was he fell behind the hitters and was unable to throw his curveball for strikes.
“That’s something that we’ve got to work to refine, so he’s able to locate, but I don’t think there’s a wall. He gave us what he had. The effort was strong, and he was just unable to locate his pitches.”
The Vaqueros (16-17, 9-8 WSC) led 8-2 after the top of the third inning before Cuesta reliever Andrew Nelson came on to keep Santa Barbara City off the scoreboard for the next four innings.
With single-run rallies in the third and fifth, the Cougars got within 8-4, but the Vaqueros pulled away with two runs against Nelson in the eighth and seven runs against a combination of three relievers in the ninth.
Cuesta could have done more damage at the plate. Although the Cougars had only eight hits, Santa Barbara City starter Rich McCaffrey walked six and hit three more. Cuesta stranded 15 runners and twice left the bases loaded.
Josh Miller was 3 for 4 with a run, and Jack Colick and Michael Nieporte added two hits apiece for Cuesta.
Seven players had multiple hits for Santa Barbara. Joey Gonzalez was 3 for 6 with four RBI, and Brandon Laubhan was 4 for 6 with five RBI.
Second-place Moorpark also lost, 7-2 to rival Ventura, and remains a game behind the Cougars. The Vaqueros are two games back. With three more to play, any team can win the conference title, and a third-place finish would likely eliminate Cuesta from playoff contention.
The Cougars finish the regular season with a Tuesday trip to Santa Barbara and a home-and-home series with Ventura on Thursday and Friday.
“Right now, we’re sitting at the top,” Bob Miller said. “We’re just going to stay focused on Cuesta and take it one day at a time because we control our own destiny. We don’t need to scoreboard watch. Hopefully, we can get to the end and be in the right spot.”