After winning four consecutive games, Gaucho baseball hopes to continue building its case for NCAA playoff contention in a three-game series at Riverside’s Sports Complex beginning on Friday at 6 p.m.

Last weekend’s three-game sweep of Long Beach State improved the Gauchos’ record to 9-9 in the Big West (27-19 overall), putting them in fifth place and one game ahead of the 8-10 Highlanders (29-16 overall), who are also vying for a playoff spot. Riverside has lost three of its last four, including two losses to last-place UC Davis. The Gauchos took one of two games they played against the Highlanders earlier this season.

“They’re coming out hard,” senior centerfielder Brian Gump said of Riverside. “They’re on the very outer fringes of playoff contention. They’re more of a pitching and defense-based team.”

The Gauchos will start junior ace Joe Gardner in the first game of the series. The right-hander is 7-1 with a 3.48 ERA so far this season to lead the weekend starting rotation. Gardner will pitch against the Highlander’s Paul Applebee, who has a 3.55 ERA and an 8-2 record on the season. Redshirt sophomore left-hander Mario Hollands, who allowed two runs in seven innings against Long Beach in the second game of last Saturday’s doubleheader, will face off against UCR’s Matt Andriese, who holds an ERA of 3.81. Four pitchers in the Highlander bullpen have an ERA under four.

“I’m expecting strong pitching all weekend,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “[The Highlanders] have an outstanding pitching staff, one of the best in the conference.”

At the plate, Brontsema wants his players to lay off pitches high in the strike zone, where he claims the Highlander staff pitched effectively in their last two meetings back in March. However, the Gauchos have had little trouble as of late scoring runs, plating 38 in four games last week. After staging a late-game comeback against Pepperdine last Wednesday, Santa Barbara rallied in the final innings to defeat Long Beach State last Sunday for the series sweep.

“Typically, when you get into another team’s bullpen they don’t have their strongest pitchers,” Gump said. “Our goal is to get that starter out, especially if he’s nasty. [If we do that], combined with the urgency that we have late in the games, we can seal the deal.”

For the first time since 2001, two Gauchos shared Big West Player of the Week honors. Gardner was honored for his complete-game, two-hit shutout against Long Beach in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader that was played in Cal State Fullerton due to the fires in Santa Barbara. The two-hitter was the first thrown by a Gaucho since Troy Kinto’s against Pacific on May 2, 1999. On the offensive side, junior second baseman Matt Valaika earned the award for going 8-13 (.615) with a home run, nine RBI, six runs scored and four doubles in four games last week.

“He was smashing the ball,” Gump said of Valaika. “It’s huge when he hits like that in the five spot. It gets the bottom of the lineup started.”

On the season, Valaika is batting .340 with 42 RBI and five home runs in 159 at bats. First baseman Eric Oliver has hit 43 RBI in the third spot, batting .419 overall. For Riverside, outfielder Michael Hur leads the team with a .381 average, six home runs and 41 RBI.

With wins over Riverside and some success against #1 UC Irvine in their last series of the regular season, the Gauchos could be hard to ignore for consideration in regards to the NCAA playoffs.

“We certainly think we put ourselves back in the conversation,” Brontsema said.