Never have 15 games looked like less time to play catch-up than now.

UCSB (23-15, 1-5 in the Big West) fell victim to its first sweep of the season at the hands of UC Riverside (24-15, 4-2 in the Big West) and have fallen even farther behind conference-leading Long Beach State, stumbling out of the starting block at a pace five games slower than the 49ers. Riverside took the first two games easily 8-6 and 18-8 before outlasting Santa Barbara 5-3 in 12 innings Sunday.

The trouble started Friday afternoon, when Gaucho sophomore ace Michael Martin followed his first loss of the year at Irvine with an even worse start, failing to record an out in the second inning en route to surrendering six earned runs. UCSB junior right fielder Matt Wilkerson cracked his second grand slam of the season in the first inning to give his team a short-lived 4-1 lead, but from that point on, the Gauchos stranded 11 runners and scored just two more despite working eight walks out of the Highlander pitchers.

Gaucho freshman right-hander Andy Graham did not look much better Saturday, yielding nine earned runs on nine hits in just one and two-thirds of an inning. Riverside pounded out 20 hits and four home runs, and seven Highlanders recorded multiple hits. UCR freshman catcher Nick Salotti slammed two home runs to right-center field and drove in six runs Saturday alone, and had three home runs and seven RBIs on the weekend. On the bright side for UCSB, freshman shortstop Chris Valaika smacked an opposite-field home run for his sixth shot of the year and senior center fielder Brian Adams delivered four hits and two RBIs off the bench.

“Martin is certainly not locating like he has in the past, and Andy did not give us an Andy-type outing, so that put us in a hole,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “They not only beat us, they beat us up.”

The whole series was tabbed as a must-win, but Sunday’s game carried the most importance given the results of the first two games. Sophomore hurler Steve Morlock took the ball, a winner in each of his four previous starts and the stopper two weekends ago against UCI, and pitched a gem of a game, going eight innings and scattering seven hits for three runs while striking out eight.

Santa Barbara entered the bottom of the fifth inning down 3-2 when senior first baseman Greg Powers ripped a double that hugged the left field line. Junior second baseman Chris Malec advanced Powers to third with a groundout to second, setting the stage for senior designated hitter Taylor Vogt’s game-tying bloop single over a drawn-in Highlander infield.

The score remained 3-3 until the fateful 12th inning, when Riverside put up two runs on RBI singles by junior left fielder Matt Cunningham and freshman first baseman Kyle Barratt. Cunningham and Barratt had both struck out three consecutive times before delivering the critical hits. UCSB junior reliever Nate Holguin, who pitched in every game of the weekend series and had tossed two scoreless innings, allowed the game winner and picked up his first loss of the season.

“[Sunday], we believed in ourselves a lot more, especially after Steve gave us such a great outing,” Malec said. “We’ve got to believe that we can win, we have to believe we can take it to them.”

The Gauchos now have their work cut out for them, with series wins over Fullerton and Long Beach State in the next two weeks now necessary to keep postseason hopes alive. These dire circumstances come after Santa Barbara’s longest winning streak in 14 seasons, but the Gauchos will look to avoid getting down on themselves.

“It’s not like we’re riding emotional roller coasters, so we’ll come out of this OK,” Wilkerson said. “These guys are pretty good about having short memories about this kind of thing.”