The top two teams in the Big West have four losses between them at the halfway point in conference play. The Gauchos (27-17, 5-7 in the Big West) earned them all, taking three games from #4 Long Beach State (30-12, 9-3 in the Big West) over the weekend to narrow the gap between them and the league’s first division.

“We were trying to shock the Big West and take this series to get back into the playoff hunt,” Gaucho senior third baseman Nate Sutton said. “Coming into this weekend, we were on life support, but now we’re alive and we’ve got to continue this.”

Santa Barbara became the first team this season to avoid losing to Dirtbag junior starter Jered Weaver, forcing him to leave the game in the eighth inning after UCSB junior third baseman Chris Malec drilled a two-out grand slam to tie the game 4-4. Weaver had struck out 14 Gauchos at that point, but Malec’s blast turned the tables on Long Beach and gave the Gauchos momentum that they would not relinquish all weekend.

UCSB put up another four-spot with two outs in the ninth inning, taking an 8-4 lead and handing the Dirtbags their first conference loss. Gaucho freshman Chris Valaika scored twice and collected three hits, one a triple off the top of the wall in left center against Weaver.

“[Valaika] is a man on the field, and he’s been that way since day one,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “He just displayed it on a bigger stage this weekend.”

Gaucho freshman right-hander Andy Graham limited Long Beach to two runs on four hits through six innings in the second game of the series. Graham’s offensive counterparts chipped in three two-out runs in the top of the seventh to make the score 4-2, with Valaika delivering the biggest hit, a two-run double to center field. UCSB junior reliever Loren Fraser shut the door on the Dirtbags, allowing just one hit through the final three innings while the Gauchos scored two insurance runs to bag a 6-2 victory.

Another four-run burst in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game put UCSB ahead 4-0, but Long Beach fought back for a four-run frame of its own in the bottom of the eighth to tie up the game. Gaucho sophomore starter Steve Morlock had held the Dirtbags scoreless until junior pitcher Jason Vargas lifted a three-run home run with two outs to spell the end of Morlock’s day.

UCSB junior right-hander Nate Holguin came on to end the inning but ran into trouble, yielding the tying run before Malec saved the day with a brilliant play to cut down the go-ahead run at the plate. With a runner on second and two away, Dirtbag sophomore pinch-hitter Tito Cruz hit a grounder that rolled up Gaucho sophomore first baseman Bill Rowe’s arm and squirted into right field.

“Malec jumped on it and wheeled and threw a strike that nailed [Dirtbag first baseman Mike Hofius] at the plate,” Brontsema recalled. “We got a great block from [junior catcher Matt] Kalafatis. It was a great play.”

The two teams traded zeroes in the ninth to send the game into extras, and in the top of the tenth, Sutton turned on a 2-2 fastball and sent it over the right field wall for a game-winning solo home run. Senior southpaw Ivan Ramirez combined with Fraser for a scoreless tenth to seal the 5-4 win and the series sweep for UCSB.

“We turned some heads around the country, and I know that we’re not going to let up at all,” Fraser said excitedly. “We’re not going to let Northridge, Pacific or Cal Poly stop us from having an excellent chance at getting to a regional.”

Santa Barbara is currently on a four-game league winning streak, its first since taking consecutive series from Pacific and Sacramento State in May 2002. The Gauchos’ sweep of the Dirtbags was their first conference three-game win since April 2001, when they blanked Pacific. UCSB is currently in a fifth-place tie with Cal Poly, just one game back from 6-6 UC Irvine.