After over two months of non-conference matchups against 15 different opponents, the UCSB baseball team begins its quest for a Big West Conference championship today against Irvine.

The Gauchos (17-13) and Anteaters will face off at 2 p.m. at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in the opener of this weekend’s three-game series and the beginning of both squads’ Big West schedule. Santa Barbara leads the all-time series over UCI, 31-28.

Coming off an impressive 33-26 record in 2002, UCI has lost four of its last five games, but UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema cannot overlook the 11-19 Anteaters.

“I know that they have a very good pitching staff, they have good team speed and they’re better than their record indicates,” Brontsema said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”

The Anteaters are expected to send sophomore right-hander Brett Smith (6-1) to the mound today to quell a Gaucho offense that has won four straight games. Smith leads the Anteaters in victories and innings pitched while posting a 3.81 ERA. He pitched his first career complete game against Washington State last weekend while striking out 10 in a 4-0 win.

UCSB will counter with a left-hander in Sean Thompson (4-3). Thompson has maintained an ERA of 4.47 and has won his last three starts.

Anteater sophomore left-hander Glenn Swanson (1-4) will get Saturday’s start and will face Gaucho sophomore righty Eric Posthumus (2-2). Swanson, fresh off a rough outing on March 28, has posted a 3.54 ERA in 48 and a third innings in 2003. Last week against the Huskies, the southpaw gave up six runs on 10 hits in four and two-thirds innings. Posthumus has won two straight decisions and has lowered his ERA to 6.47.

Sunday’s finale will feature UCSB junior ace Matt Vasquez (2-2) and UCI senior right-hander Paul French (0-2).

Brontsema said he believes that his team’s mental approach will dictate its success this weekend.

“We need to come out with the right mentality and the right attitude everyday because we just don’t overpower teams,” he said. “We’ve had success because we’ve played the game pretty well. We’ve done all the things that we’ve talked about and worked on. But we can’t come out and throw our jocks out and expect to win.”

Left-handed hitting outfielder Chris Klemm leads UCI at the plate. The junior transfer from Cuesta College has racked up a team-leading .336 batting average and has slugged two home runs and 12 RBIs.

Offensively, the Gauchos have received a huge spark with the return of senior first baseman Josh McCanne and sophomore second baseman Chris Malec. The two fell victim to injury the weekend that Santa Barbara played San Jose State. They both returned last weekend in UCSB’s sweep of Cal State Northridge and continued their hot-hitting on Wednesday against Westmont.

“We’ve got good pitching, a decent offense and good defense,” McCanne said of his team. “As long as our pitching stays healthy, I think we’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Saturday and Sunday’s games at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium will begin at 1 p.m.