With experienced pitching and a collection of exciting young position players, the UCSB baseball team will begin the 2007 season with aspirations of ending a five-year postseason drought.

Last season’s hopes were derailed by injuries, and with the Big West Conference once again featuring some of the nation’s best teams, the Gauchos need to stay healthy in order to compete with the Big West elite. UCSB finished 26-28 last year, good for seventh place in the Big West. The Gauchos were picked to finish sixth this year, with #12 Cal State Fullerton being chosen to claim its fourth-straight title.

“You want to judge yourself against the best talent and the best teams, and we get an opportunity to do that every year,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “Those [polls] are based on last year, so I don’t pay much attention to those types of things and if people are going to overlook us, I think that’s a nice thing.”

UCSB’s strength lies in a deep and experienced starting rotation that should give the team a chance to win any series. Senior right-handed pitcher Steve Morlock returns to the hill to lead the rotation, after missing the entire 2006 season due to injury. Morlock led the 2005 squad with 17 starts and seven wins, while posting a 5.83 ERA in 97.1 innings pitched. Senior southpaw Jeff Braun is slated as the Saturday starter for the Gauchos. Braun posted outstanding numbers last season, averaging 6.1 innings per start and posting a 3.11 ERA. After impressing the coaches in fall practices, it appears that freshman right-handed pitcher Mike Ford has earned the Sunday start.

“It’s nice to have senior leadership and a lot of times in baseball you don’t always get that,” Brontsema said. “The fact that we’ve got seven senior arms on the staff is pretty encouraging and that’s kind of what we’re leaning on.”

The Gauchos also have the luxury of an experienced closer, as senior right-handed pitcher Justin Segal returns after earning Second Team All-Big West honors. Segal finished the 2006 season with a Big West leading 2.29 ERA in a school record 36 appearances. Segal racked up seven saves last season, and has been named to the preseason watch list for the national Stopper of the Year Award. The rest of the bullpen will be strong with several experienced pitchers combining with a talented recruiting class to give Brontsema plenty of late game options.

UCSB’s lineup will center around senior first baseman Robbie Blauer, who started 53 of UCSB’s 54 games last season. The Second Team All-Big West honoree finished the year with a .332 batting average, two homeruns, 29 RBI and 38 runs scored. Junior Patrick Rose, sophomore Shane Carlson and freshmen Matt Valaika and Gunnar Terhune are all in the mix to round out the starting infield.

“[Blauer] is going to bat third in the lineup, but he’s going to need protection around him, so part of his success will come from us providing bats around him,” Brontsema said. “If we execute and move runners around, we should be very sufficient offensively”

Senior right fielder Mario Lewis will anchor the outfield after starting 40 games in 2006. The Santa Ynez-native batted .299 last season and finished with 19 runs scored, and 24 RBI. Junior transfer Chris Fox is slated to start in centerfield and hit near the top of the order and senior Clayton Shank, junior Mike Zuanich, and sophomores Brian Gump and Austin Hogans should all see playing time in the outfield as well.

Senior Matt McColgan returns to lead the catchers after suffering a season-ending injury in 2006.

Santa Barbara will open its preseason schedule with a weekend series at San Jose State beginning this Friday at 2 p.m.