Home runs and 10-9 slugfests give fans plenty of chances to stand up and cheer like crazy for offense, and the Gauchos (20-10, 0-0 in the Big West) have certainly been holding up their end of the crowd-pleasing play lately.

After averaging 13 runs per game over a nine-game winning streak, Santa Barbara will cruise into pitcher-friendly Anteater Ballpark tonight at 6:30 to face #10 UC Irvine (20-6-1, 0-0 in the Big West) and its scintillating 2.79 team ERA.

Irvine put most of its eggs into the pitching basket, evidenced by its unimpressive .275 batting average and fifth place standing in the Big West in fielding percentage with .964. The Anteater defense has been especially suspect with UCI sophomore Saturday starter Chris Nicoll who, though second in the conference with a 1.58 ERA, has suffered through seven unearned runs in his last two starts.

“That’s a trend that we hope will continue this weekend,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “But they pitch the heck out of it, and I don’t think their defense is bad.”

Tonight’s Anteater starter, junior Brett Smith (5-0, 2.30 ERA), is working on 16 consecutive shutout innings and has lodged three wins against nationally-ranked programs this season, most recently felling #7 Long Beach State 1-0 two weekends ago. UCI junior southpaw Glenn Swanson (5-1, 3.76 ERA) will get the call for Friday’s contest. All starters can hand the ball to a competent bullpen and eventually to Irvine closer Blair Erickson, who leads the country with 11 saves.

All of the quality arms on UCI’s staff may finally quell the UCSB hitting attack that has flustered its last three opponents, and the Gauchos are not expecting to blow out the Anteaters by any means.

“We’re not going in thinking, ‘let’s score in double figures.’ We go in with the mindset that when there’s an opportunity to execute, we execute,” Brontsema said. “We need to execute, whether it’s for the 10th run or the first run.”

Santa Barbara has been executing very well of late with a roster that now features .300 batting averages from seven different everyday players, led by senior designated hitter-turned-first-baseman Greg Powers at .383. UCSB is also the league’s best slugging club with a .462 mark, and senior catcher Taylor Vogt is leading the way with seven home runs and is second on the team with 28 runs driven in. Senior third baseman Nate Sutton is scoring runs at a torrid pace with 49 in the team’s first 30 games.

Even with the offensive onslaught, Gaucho defense has been more than dependable, heading up the Big West in fielding percentage, chances accepted per game and assists per game. As a team that strikes out a mere 5.5 hitters per game – compared to a strikeout machine like Irvine at 8.2 per game – infield defense becomes all the more important.

“That’s another confidence booster, just like the offense,” sophomore pitcher Andy Graham said. “I can go out there and throw the ball over the plate and know that they’re going to make plays for me.”

Graham (2-1, 2.57 ERA), who twirled the club’s second shutout of the season last Saturday against Sacramento State, will oppose Swanson on Friday at 6 p.m., but not before sophomore ace Michael Martin (8-0, 3.18 ERA) takes the hill tonight against Smith. Sophomore hurler Steve Morlock will face off against Nicoll Saturday at 1 p.m.