For UCSB baseball, the real season starts this weekend. Despite facing the likes of nonconference opponents UCLA, USC and Washington, the Gauchos’ challenge is only ahead of them. As if playing in arguably the best baseball conference in the country isn’t enough, Santa Barbara will have to do that for its final 18 games, and all with a shortened bench.

The Gauchos (19-19 overall, 1-2 in the Big West) will face off against a Big West opponent for the first time in three weeks, hosting Cal Poly for three games beginning today.

“We need a series win,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “We have a pretty aggressive challenge ahead of us with the three top teams in the Big West [in the next three weeks] so it’s not going to be easy.”

After earning a #38 ranking in Baseball America’s Preseason Top 50, the Mustangs (24-14 overall, 5-1 Big West) started the season off 10-9. Since then, Cal Poly has won 14 of its last 19 games including two of three against Davis last weekend.

In the home dugout, Santa Barbara is coming off of an 8-2 loss at #22 USC on Tuesday. Last weekend, the Gauchos earned their first series win since March 26, taking two of three from UCLA. In the two wins, UCSB got quality innings from its junior starting pitchers Michael Martin and Steve Morlock. The two combined to throw 12.2 innings while allowing just four runs and striking out nine.

Cal Poly is a familiar opponent already this season. Santa Barbara played three nonconference games with the Mustangs in the preseason, dropping two out of three. In the teams’ last meeting, Cal Poly won 9-4 at Baggett Stadium in San Luis Obispo.

Batting .288 as a team, the Mustangs feature four starters batting over .300. Senior catcher Kyle Blumenthal leads the team with a .372 average and 37 RBI. In Santa Barbara’s three meetings with Cal Poly this season, junior left fielder Brandon Roberts had the Gauchos’ number, going 6-9 at the plate with four runs, an RBI and a stolen base.

“For me the two key players are Roberts and Blumenthal,” Brontsema said. “Blumenthal is [Cal Poly’s] best hitter and I think that Roberts is a very dangerous guy when he gets on the base paths.”

Even with only four infielders remaining on its roster, UCSB can rely on the consistent bats of freshman designated hitter Matt Aidem and senior right fielder Matt Wilkerson. Aidem leads the squad with a .380 batting average, while Wilkerson has contributed team-highs of 30 runs and 37 RBI.

The Central Coast and Big West rivalry kicks off today at 2 p.m. at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. First pitch Saturday and Sunday is scheduled for 1 p.m.