Not much separates the two teams set to meet for a three-game series beginning at 2 p.m. at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium as they face the same challenge – winning a Big West Conference series.

UC Riverside (21-15, 1-2 in the Big West) looks to strike fear into the hearts of the remaining opponents on its schedule and return to the level of performance it boasted 2003. UCSB (23-12, 1-2 in the Big West) needs to win at least two-of-three games because it has conference powerhouses Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State lurking around the corner in the approaching weekends.

The Highlanders lost their series to Cal Poly last weekend in much the same way that the Gauchos dropped theirs against UC Irvine, despite their nine-game winning streak. UCR junior ace A.J. Shappi (6-2, 3.04 ERA) had his worst outing of the season Friday against the Mustangs, yielding nine runs in the first two innings of his three-inning stint for the loss.

Similarly, UCSB sophomore hurler Michael Martin (8-1, 3.69 ERA) lasted just 4.1 innings against Irvine, giving up seven runs to earn his first loss of the season. Both pitchers will use their starts today to bounce back from disappointment.

“One of Mike’s big characteristics is that he’s a competitor,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “He’ll rebound just fine, and we’ll get a competitive outing from him, that’s for sure.”

Riverside scored five runs in its half of the ninth inning to avoid a 9-0 shutout at the hands of the Mustangs on April 9, the same day that Gauchos waited until the seventh inning to break up a no-hitter at Irvine. Highlander senior John Martinez (6-0, 2.95 ERA) came two outs away from a 5-4 complete game win on April 10, the same day that UCSB sophomore right-hander Steve Morlock (6-4, 4.50 ERA) pitched five strong innings during the Gauchos’ 8-2 win.

Despite the fact that Morlock had to be the stopper and the Gauchos had to deal with their first loss with Martin on the mound, this year’s pitching staff is nothing like the ace-by-committee staffs of the last two seasons.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue to get some consistency from all of the guys,” Brontsema said. “We know it’s going to be a dogfight every day in this league.”

UCR features a trio of formidable hitters in freshman catcher Nick Salotti, senior third baseman Tony Festa, and freshman center fielder Brett Bigler, a challenge for any pitcher. Bigler is a traditional leadoff man with 34 runs and 34 walks to go with a .503 on-base percentage. Salotti is stinging the ball at a .382 clip in his first season, while Festa is delivering his usual productive year with a .376 average and a team-best 35 RBI. Salotti and Festa are third and fourth in the league in batting average, respectively, and are tied for fourth with six in home run stats apiece.

Santa Barbara counters with senior first baseman Greg Powers at .371, but the rest of the team holds a batting average of .312 compared to Riverside’s mark of .287. The Gauchos also get on base more often than any other Big West team and out-slug the Highlanders .460 to .419 thanks to having 10 more home runs.

Saturday’s 1 p.m. game will feature Gaucho freshman Andy Graham (2-2, 2.79 ERA) against Martinez, and Morlock will oppose a pitcher-to-be-named-later in Sunday’s finale, also at 1.