In Big West baseball, Titans loom over the competition and 49ers pan most of the gold away from everyone else on the stream, making the Gauchos’ pursuit of a conference title all the more elusive. Anyone not named Cal State Fullerton or Long Beach State is usually clambering for third or fourth place. With such talented teams in the same league, Santa Barbara is going to have to put together a spectacular run to demand consideration for an NCAA Regional berth.

Long Beach State snatched the crown from Fullerton in the final weekend of the 2003 season, but the Highlanders of Riverside threw their hats into the ring, finishing two games back of the 49ers and earning the last of three Big West bids to the Regionals. None of the five remaining teams in the conference mustered a winning league record. Which enterprising team will take advantage of the situation and sneak up to a higher position in this year’s standings?

It won’t be the Matadors, who have a similar story to Santa Barbara’s, the difference being that UCSB is three years removed from their last successful campaign and therefore further along the path back to the first division. Cal State Northridge shocked the college baseball world two seasons ago, putting it all together to win the league championship and then losing most of their key players to the draft and graduation. Last year’s squad limped to a 14-42 record without team captain and senior right-handed pitcher Phil Polanco, who returns from injury this year and leads a very young pitching staff.

Second-year Cal Poly Head Coach Larry Lee has constructed a team that can wreak havoc on the basepaths, and that being his favorite kind of team to manage adds an intangible to the Mustang equation. Outfielder Billy Saul and second baseman Adam Leavitt, both seniors, can do damage with their bats, and rubber-armed junior reliever Dennis LeDuc can and will pitch forever. The key weakness is the Mustang infield, featuring three new players, either to the position, like senior third-baseman-turned-shortstop Josh Mayo, or to the team, which fielded an unimpressive .957 in 2003.

UC Irvine, a junior-laden team, has the best chance on paper, and should avoid last season’s collapse against conference weaklings Pacific and Northridge that helped earn them an 8-13 league record. Junior starting pitchers Brett Smith, a right-hander, and Glenn Swanson, a southpaw, will both log over 100 innings with sub-4.00 ERAs and will present a formidable righty-lefty one-two punch to the rest of the league. Runs will come at a premium at spacious Anteater Ballpark in Irvine, but Smith and Swanson are the veterans of the young program and give their team a great chance to win every time they pitch.

The Gauchos can run into the conference schedule and snag fourth place only if everyone on the team performs as expected. Anything that causes missed playing time or limited production for senior third baseman Nate Sutton, junior second baseman Chris Malec or junior right fielder Matt Wilkerson could have disastrous affects on the club’s offensive output. Gaucho pitching is suspect until proven, and nobody can predict what the redshirt- and transfer-rich staff will do until they throw some real innings.

It’s too much to expect a fourth-place finish from this year’s group because everything has to go right for that to happen, but even a strong, above-.500 finish this year would mean a lot to what looks to be a strong UCSB team in 2005.

It all comes down to 21 games played in seven weeks, beginning in April. The Gauchos can be the best of the rest in the Big West if they win the series that they’re supposed to win and take a few from the likes of Riverside, Fullerton and Long Beach.