The Big West race is entering its final leg, and because the battle is for third place, the Gauchos (32-19 overall, 9-9 in the Big West) have to worry about gaining on UC Riverside (10-8) while keeping UC Irvine (8-10) at arm’s length. Santa Barbara must do all of this at the home of Cal Poly (36-22-1, 8-10), the other fifth place team in the conference, in a three game series beginning Friday at 6 p.m.

“If we don’t win this series, we won’t give ourselves a chance to go to regionals,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “At the same time, for them to have any chance at all, they have to sweep.”

Since starting conference play at 2-1, sweep has been the name of the game for the Mustangs, who swept Pacific before falling in three games to Long Beach State, Fullerton and Irvine in succession for a season-long nine-game losing streak. Cal Poly bounced back to wipe out Northridge last weekend, but it took a pair of extra-inning home runs by Big West Player of the Week and Mustang sophomore first baseman Bret Berglund to down the pitiful Matadors.

The chips are down and the stakes are up for the critical series, which is the second time the two teams have met this season. The Mustangs won two of the three games in a home-away-home set in March, losing to the Gauchos 8-3 at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium before winning 8-2 and 5-4. Junior right-hander Jimmy Shull pitched eight innings of three-hit ball to stifle the Gauchos in game two, and sophomore southpaw Garrett Olson also twirled some three-hit magic in game three, adding 13 strikeouts and getting just enough run support from his club to earn the win.

Shull (8-5, 4.29 ERA) and Olson (7-5, 5.36 ERA) will pitch on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and the Mustangs will call on junior hurler Jonathan Fleming (4-1, 3.02 ERA), who has not yet faced the Gauchos, to close out the regular season on Sunday.

The Gauchos are coming off a disappointing series loss against Pacific, but a third place finish in the strong Big West virtually guarantees them a spot in the playoffs, and the team is optimistic that it can capitalize on the first meaningful end of the season in three years.

“We’re trying to move on from last weekend; there’s nothing we can do about it now,” junior utility Matt Stevens said. “It’s nice to be playing for something; life is more and more baseball and less and less other things.”

No one Gaucho hitter did particularly well against the Mustangs earlier in the season, although senior third baseman Nate Sutton went three for 10 with five runs scored and two stolen bases. Sutton leads the league comfortably with 67 runs scored this season and touched home three times against the Tigers.

Santa Barbara will send its usual pitching rotation to the hill against the Mustangs, beginning with sophomore hurler Michael Martin (9-3, 4.94 ERA), who is in pursuit of the first 10-win season by a Gaucho since 2001. Freshman righty Andy Graham (4-4, 4.96 ERA) will follow on Saturday, and sophomore right-hander Steve Morlock (7-4, 4.66 ERA) is slated for Sunday’s contest. Morlock’s last loss came against the Mustangs on March 12, and he has gone 5-0 in ten starts since.