Big West baseball is back and the UCSB baseball team hopes its hot hitting will carry it in the pitching- dominated conference.

The Gauchos’ (13-13 overall) offense has dominated of late, plating 51 runs on their current four-game winning streak, while the pitching staff has combined to allow just 13. The squad has also won three of its last four series.

“We have more guys contributing and we’ve been more competitive throughout the lineup one through nine, not just one through three,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said.

The middle infielders have carried the UCSB offense through the first half of the season. Junior shortstop Chris Valaika has lived up to the expectations of being named to the preseason watch list for the Wallace Award – given each year to collegiate baseball’s most valuable player – by leading the Gauchos in homeruns, RBIs, doubles and hits while batting .389. Sophomore second baseman Alden Carrithers has thrived in the leadoff spot, leading the squad with a .396 batting average and topping the team in on-base percentage, walks, runs and stolen bases.

“We’ve grown a lot through these first 26 games,” Brontsema said. “We’ve improved but still need to put complete games together where we pitch and hit and play good defense. It’s good to have positive momentum going into conference because we’re a young team.”

Santa Barbara begins conference action this afternoon, hosting UC Riverside for a three-game series. The Highlanders (16-11) have won eight of their last 11, including a three-game sweep against Loyola Marymount, a team that took two of three from UCSB.

“Riverside has great pitching,” Valaika said. “From what we’re hearing from other players and coaches, they might be the best pitching team in the conference.”

Leading the way on the mound for Riverside is sophomore James Simmons, who boasts a 6-1 record with an ERA of 1.39 and is fifth in the conference with 54 strikeouts. The Highlanders boast a balanced offense featuring seven hitters with at least 10 RBIs and seven regulars hitting at or above .300.

“They are going to bring the same thing that a lot of Big West teams will bring in outstanding pitching,” Brontsema said. “They have very good team speed and like to run a lot. We’re going to have to be very good offensively.”

The Gauchos look to start conference play on the right note against a Riverside team that won two of the teams’ three meetings last year.

“I think we’re kind of the underdog in conference,” Valaika said. “If we keep playing like we have been, we should turn some heads.”

First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.