In a must-win series for a Gaucho team trying desperately to stay afloat among postseason contenders coming down the stretch, UC Santa Barbara (34-19 overall, 13-8 in the Big West) bust out the brooms in a crucial sweep of reigning champion UC Riverside (19-31 overall, 12-9 Big West), outscoring their opponents 37-14 in a dominating weekend performance.

“It was just what the doctor ordered,” junior right fielder Brian Gump said. “Everyone started getting hot and even though a lot of people say it, it’s true that hitting is really contagious.”

The Gauchos scored early and often in Friday’s series opener, plating three runs in the bottom of the third to take the lead for good in a 13-2 blowout. Senior third baseman Patrick Rose (.368 average, 39 runs, 29 RBI) knocked in the first two runs of the game for Santa Barbara on his team-leading fifth triple of the season before finishing 5-for-5 with 4 RBI and a home run short of the cycle. UCSB’s third through seventh hitters would combine to go 13-for-21 with 11 runs scored and 11 RBI in support of sophomore starter Mike Ford (6-4, 2.88 ERA), who would toss his fourth complete game of the season with five strikeouts in a convincing win.

“The middle of the lineup was unreal,” Gump said. “It wasn’t that their [Riverside’s] pitching was that bad, but that our offense was that good.”

Santa Barbara carried its hot bats into Saturday’s series clincher, busting out for double-digit runs once again in a 10-4 victory. Senior left fielder and Big West home runs leader Mike Zuanich (.322 average, 14 HR, 57 RBI) showed off his power stroke in the bottom of the first, blasting his second home run in as many days to put his team up 2-1. After UCR stormed back to tie the game momentarily at 3-3 in the top of the fourth, UCSB would respond with five more runs in the bottom of the inning to secure the win for redshirt freshman Mario Hollands (7-2, 3.57 ERA). Hollands would strike out nine in a gutsy eight-inning start, bouncing back in a big way after struggling last Saturday against Long Beach.

“Mario [Hollands] battled through the later innings to keep us on top,” Gump said. “When he came out and said he had nothing left, it was obvious he had given it his all.”

Unfortunately for the Gauchos, senior Sunday starter Chuck Huggins (8-2, 4.67 ERA) would not duplicate the success of his rotation mates in his final start at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, giving up eight runs in only two and one-third innings. Lucky for Huggins, the offense would pick up the normally reliable lefty, scoring eight runs in the fifth and six innings to reclaim the lead after going down 8-5. Several graduating seniors would give the hometown crowd a show on “Senior Day,” with senior center fielder Chris Fox (.341 average, 44 runs, 39 RBI) and senior catcher Matt McColgan (.281 average, 3 HR, 19 RBI) joining Rose and Zuanich to go 10-for-18 with nine runs scored and 11 RBI, significantly contributing to the 14-8 final score.

Senior righty Michael Martin (5-3, 4.04 ERA) would pitch six scoreless innings in relief of Huggins to pick up the win before giving way to the junior closer Jason Roenicke (0-0, 5.27 ERA) who recorded the final two outs of the series.

“It was an outstanding effort all the way around,” Pitching Coach Tom Myers said. “Our guys competed for 27 outs, three days in a row, which is a testament to them and how they wouldn’t give up.”

Now alone in third place in the Big West, UCSB will travel to No. 9 UC Irvine next weekend to wrap up the 2008 season. The Gauchos will need to win two out of three to keep their postseason hopes alive, with a sweep putting them in fantastic position to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001.

“If we stay to our game and play aggressive like we did this weekend, we should be all right,” Gump said. “With everything that’s on the line, we will be coming full force to get that playoff bid.”