UCSB baseball picked the worst time to lose a Big West series by sweep. The Gauchos’ three-game disappointment at the hands of UC Riverside last weekend gives them five losses in league play, the total number of conference losses by last year’s Big West champion, Long Beach State, but Santa Barbara (23-15, 1-5 in the Big West) is only two weeks into the league schedule.

The Gauchos are highly unlikely to make it into the postseason without winning the conference, so there is no doubt that their backs are against the wall. Now, winning only two of three from the likes of Pacific and Cal State Northridge is unacceptable, and they cannot afford to lose more than one game to Big West bashers Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton.

“We don’t go into a series expecting to sweep, but we’re going to have to go in and sweep some people,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema explained after Sunday’s 12-inning loss. “We’ve put ourselves in a position with no hiccup room, and beating the Long Beach States and the Fullertons two out of three is a daunting task.”

Starting pitching is only starting to become a concern despite two consecutive bad outings from sophomore ace Michael Martin and a forgettable less-than-two-inning stint from freshman Andy Graham last weekend. After two midweek games, the Gauchos really needed Martin and Graham to go deep into the games, in addition to desperately needing wins.

Sophomore Steve Morlock has come through twice on Sundays with strong starts, but even his eight innings of work last Sunday weren’t enough to save the tired Gaucho bullpen from having to toss four innings.

“These guys play with pressure all the time, so that’s not the issue,” Brontsema said. “We were a little thin, having to play five [last] week, and we were hoping these guys were able to come back fresh.”

Excepting a five-hit shutout at the hands of UCI junior Brett Smith, one of the premier pitchers in the league, the Gaucho offense has not been terrible in league play, hitting .295 over the last five conference contests. The problem has been execution, with UCSB leaving 11 men on base last Friday to lose 8-6, and stranding 32 all told against Riverside.

It’s easy to point at Santa Barbara’s nine-game winning streak against weak opposition (compared to Big West competition) and believe that its confidence was unfounded. On the contrary, Brontsema feels that his team should not be down and does not question the validity of its nonconference accomplishments.

“The fact remains that we have to give the teams we play some credit,” he said, noting that the Gauchos have the nation’s 33rd toughest schedule according to the Rankings Percentage Index. “I don’t think that we believe how good we really are.”

A positive approach might improve the on-the-field effort that was on display last weekend. Three times on Saturday, Riverside stretched soft singles up the middle into doubles simply by hustling them out, catching the UCSB outfielders off-guard and prompting a lineup change very early in the game.

“It takes no talent to play hard, so every guy we have should be playing hard all of the time,” Brontsema said.

Winning the Big West from Santa Barbara’s current position is like sprinting the last 20 miles of a marathon, but it’s the only hope there is for postseason play. The Gauchos begin their quest to run the table this Friday against league-leading Cal State Fullerton.