The UCSB men’s baseball team will begin their last month of the regular season against Big West foe #5 Cal State Fullerton on Friday, playing a three-game series at Goodwin Field that could make or break their playoff hopes.

“We must win the next three out of four – maybe four out of four – to make the playoffs,” senior center fielder Brian Gump said. “Wins against Fullerton and teams of their caliber all go pretty far in terms of at-large regional bids.”

The Gauchos (23-15 overall, 6-6 Big West), ranked fifth in the Big West, are coming off their third consecutive loss on Tuesday – an 8-6 home defeat to Cal State Bakersfield. Fullerton (29-12 overall, 9-6 Big West) has won their last six matches, sweeping lowly UC Davis (7-32 overall, 1-11 Big West) in their last series from April 24 to 26. UCSB lost to Fullerton in the season series in 2008.

“We’re pretty embarrassed by [the loss against Bakersfield],” Gump said. “But it could be a blessing in disguise. We’ve got a lot of aggression to get out of our systems.”

While the Titans own the highest national ranking in the Big West, Fullerton is in third place in the conference behind Cal Poly (10-5 Big West) and #1 UC Irvine (11-1 Big West). Fullerton’s last two losses came against Pacific in mid April, who are ranked sixth in the Big West. Of the Titans’ 12 season losses, eight have been at home – where they are only three games above .500.[[nf…plus, my math sucks]]

“Goodwin Field is one of my favorite places to play,” Gump said. “It’s a fun atmosphere with really dedicated fans; most of the guys love that and thrive in those situations. That’s great for us [that Fullerton is worse at home].”

Gump’s .357 season clip is the second-highest for the Gauchos behind that of junior infielder Ryan “The Cav Man” Cavan, who is currently hitting .357 in 126 at bats. As a team, the Gauchos are hitting .304, compared to the Titans’ .318. Gaucho senior infielder Eric Oliver leads the team with 38 RBIs and six home runs. For the Titans, senior first basemen Jared Clark leads the team with 51 RBIs. On Monday, Titan sophomore infielder-outfielder Gary Brown was selected the Big West Conference Player of the Week after batting .476 (10-21) with two doubles, two triples and two home runs, earning 7 RBIs and scoring 11 runs.

UCSB will likely start junior right-hander Joe Gardner in the opening match of the series. Gardner, who was one of 50 pitchers placed on the National Pitcher of the Year Watch List sponsored by Mizuno and the College Baseball Foundation, pitched a complete game and threw eight strikeouts last week against Cal Poly. He holds a 3.51 ERA in 66.2 innings pitched and a team-leading 6-0 record.

“[Gardner] showed a lot of heart last weekend,” Gump said. “He’s really excited for the opportunity to show off his stuff against a top dog like Fullerton.”

Sophomore left-hander Mario Hollands is expected to start on Saturday after earning a 4.45 ERA and a 4-4 record on the season.

“I’ve been trying to get back to basics,” he said. “[I want to] pitch like I did earlier this year when I had better success.”

At this point, the Gaucho’s third pitcher is questionable between between right-handers Mike Ford, a junior, and senior Zach Samuels. Gump speculates that Ford, who has pitched well after being demoted to relief, might have earned his starting spot back.

The Titans’ sophomore right-hander Daniel Renken leads the team’s starting rotation with a 2.32 ERA in 66 innings pitched. As a team, the Titans combine for a 3.41 ERA, compared to the Gauchos’ team total ERA of 5.11.

Friday’s first pitch will be at 7:00 p.m. The teams will face off at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday and 1:00 p.m. on Sunday.

“I think we have a pretty good chance this weekend,” Hollands said. “It would be a great confidence builder to win this series.”