Rarely has the UCSB baseball team played the role of the underdog this season.

Currently the 23rd-ranked team in the country, the Gauchos have steamrolled their way to a 35-12 record this season, usually playing the role of favorite. Santa Barbara was even favored against perennial Big West power Long Beach State, and the club was visibly disappointed after taking only two out of three against the Dirtbags.

But things are going to change this weekend.

The Gauchos are in for a rather large role reversal, as they travel to Fullerton to play the top team in the country. The Titans (38-12, 11-1 in the Big West) have won 24 of their last 26 games, but are coming off of a 9-3 loss at the hands of UCLA.

Nevertheless, Santa Barbara will be a decided underdog this weekend. At 9-3, UCSB stands two games behind Fullerton, and the Gauchos will have no better opportunity to pick up some ground on the Titans than this weekend.

“We expect a battle,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We’re going in looking to win the series, like we’ve been doing all season. I don’t think that we have pressure to sweep. If we take two out of three, then we’re only one game back, and we have to take care of business against [Cal Poly] San Luis Obispo. To go in there thinking we have to sweep would be putting undue pressure on the guys.”

To compete with Fullerton, Santa Barbara will need Pitcher of the Week-worthy performances from all of its starters. Junior James Garcia (9-1, 2.62 ERA) will get the first crack at Fullerton on Friday. UCSB will send senior Rylie Ogle to the mound Saturday and sophomore Jim Bullard on Sunday.

“We’re looking to take two out of three [from Fullerton], at least two out of three,” sophomore starter Jim Bullard said. “If we play our game and hold Fullerton under four runs, we should come away with two victories.”

Normally when Garcia takes the hill, his numbers far outshine the opposition’s starter, but that will not be the case this weekend. Garcia will be matched up against Titan starter Kirk Saarloos, who carries an 11-1 record and a 1.87 ERA.

“[The Titans] have one of the best pitching staffs in the country,” Brontsema said. “All we have to do is score one more than they do. It’s going to be a real dogfight because they have the best pitching in a real good pitching conference.”

Though Fullerton boasts the best pitching in the Big West, UCSB can easily lay claim as the top hitting club in the conference. The Gauchos are hitting a robust .340 as a team, and eight out of nine regulars are hitting above the .300 mark. Senior third baseman Dave Molidor and sophomore center fielder Skip Schumaker are hitting .406 to lead UCSB. And junior first baseman Tyler Von Schell has already tied the team record for home runs in a season with 17.

Lost in the current record-setting year has been sophomore right fielder Ryan Spilborghs. Hitting out of the nine-hole, Spilborghs is in the midst of a school-record 26-game hitting streak. The man known as “Spilly” is hitting .440 during the streak, and .500 in Big West play.

“He’s swinging the bat extremely well,” Brontsema said. “We haven’t sacrificed with him because he’s swinging it so well. We expected him to have a good year, but we didn’t expect him to hit .500 in conference play.”

The Gauchos will need their entire team to be hitting on all cylinders this weekend to upset Fullerton, but freshman pitcher Matt Vasquez thinks UCSB will be up to the challenge.

“We’re going to go in strong,” Vasquez said. “We’re going to go in there and play our ‘A’ game. Fullerton’s a good team and we’re a good team. It’s going to be a great series.”