After a bruising three-game series at Cal State Fullerton where they were on the business end of the mercy rule twice, the UCSB softball team returns home to continue Big West play against Central Coast rival Cal Poly this weekend at Campus Diamond.

The Gauchos, who have lost eight in a row for the second time this season, enter the upcoming best-of-three as owners of their worst start since 1991 (when they opened 7-27) and an abysmal 1-8 record in front of the home crowd.

“We never lack confidence in ourselves,” senior pitcher MeLinda Matsumoto said. “Sometimes the balls don’t fall, or we don’t have luck with certain things, but we know that we’re good. We know that if one of the girls gets out, the next girl will pick her up. If one of the pitchers comes out, the next pitcher is going to get the job done for us.”

In a down year for a Big West Conference — referenced by all eight teams lacking winning overall records — the 2009 Big West Champion Mustangs (12-17, 1-2) seemed prime candidates for a repeat performance, but a tentative offense coupled with inconsistent pitching has kept Cal Poly from distancing itself from the pack.

Discussion of the green and gold’s success this year begins and ends with perhaps the league’s most versatile player in junior pitcher Anna Cahn. Cahn, who leads the Big West with an ERA of 1.96, also ranks third offensively with a .352 average at the dish. Despite taking the least at-bats out of anyone in the top-20, Cahn’s 13 RBI and a league-best 22 walks speak for themselves.

On the mound, Cahn — who has started more games for the Mustangs than their other three pitchers combined — has a disappointing record of 8-9, but in 93 innings pitched she’s fanned 73 while giving up only 26 earned runs. Those 73 K’s are good for fifth place in the Big West thus far.

As for Santa Barbara, it’s been a season of struggles in all aspects of the game. Offensively, UCSB has eight different hitters batting under .230 and has produced only 68 RBI compared to their opponent’s 183. Five different Gauchos have struck out over 11 times and as a team they have been outscored 202-86.

Defensively it doesn’t get much better. UCSB owns a dubious 47-37 advantage in errors over their opponents while those same foes are hitting the Gaucho staff for .325, which isn’t terrible unless you factor in Santa Barbara’s .243 team average.

Second-year hurler Krista Cobb has gone though a significant sophomore slump that hasn’t helped matters. The former Big West Co-Freshman Pitcher of the Year is 2-8 in 2010, and has watched her 1.93 freshman ERA rise to 7.51. Cobb, a notorious power-pitcher, has yet to consistently blow by hitters recording only 39 strikeouts compared to the 115 she finished with last year. Matsumoto and fellow senior pitcher Lindsay Correa have done their best to pick up the slack with ERAs around 4.75 in a combined 154.2 innings pitched. Matsumoto currently leads the team in strikeouts with 40.

Offensively, it’s been the lead-off production of senior infielder Jessica Ziegler that has kept the Gauchos in games. With a team-high .354 average, 40 hits and 17 stolen bags, Ziegler brings consistency to a lineup that severely needs it. Junior third baseman Jessica Beristianos had a remarkable start against Cal State Fullerton last weekend, hitting .600 in 10 at-bats, which bodes well for an offense that needs to solidify their run production if they have any notion of competing for a conference crown.

“We learned [against Fullerton] that we can compete in every game and have an opportunity to win every single game as long as we stay locked-on through seven innings,” Matsumoto said.

UCSB begins their three-game homestead against Cal Poly with a Saturday doubleheader at Campus Diamond scheduled to start at noon. The rubber match will take place the following day, same time and place. As always, admission for students is free.