After losing six of its last seven games, a season of injuries and numerous gut-wrenching late-inning losses, the UCSB baseball team has still managed to scrape by. The Gauchos begin the first games of their last three Big West series of the season today at 6 p.m. against UC Irvine.

“We’re still looking to win the series,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “Two of the three teams we play [to end the season] are ahead of us [in the conference standings], so we have the opportunity to gain some positive ground in the weekends ahead of us.”

The Gauchos have had a streaky year, winning as many as five games in a row but also putting together two separate five-game losing streaks. In games tied after seven or more innings, UCSB is 2-8. Still, the sixth-place Gauchos are 6-9 against Big West opponents and 20-23 overall.

UCSB’s inconsistency could be attributed to the many injuries the roster has sustained this season. Most recently, the Gauchos have lost three seniors: catcher Marty Mullins, shortstop Matt Valaika and outfielder Ryan Tregoning, who have combined for a .300 batting average and nearly a third of the team’s 233 RBI this season. The Gauchos bat a conference-trailing .286 on the season.

“With the injuries we’ve had, we don’t have a lot of depth left,” Brontsema said.

Meanwhile, the second-place Anteaters have batted .302 on their way to a 10-5 Big West record behind 15-3 Cal State Fullerton. While the Titans are widely considered to be the most consistently talented team in the conference, Irvine spent much of last season ranked first in the nation in 2009, winning games with their consistent pitching and their persistence at the plate.

“They play the small game very well,” senior centerfielder Gunnar Terhune said. “They take advantage of mistakes, execute hit and runs with two outs. They’re aggressive and they get quality team at-bats. That’s why you see them have so much success going into the playoffs.”

In spite of the Gauchos’ woes on the offensive side of the ball, left-fielder Ben Edelstein, who has played in only 16 games this season, has picked up some of the slack for the Gauchos in his last four starts after batting 10-18 (.556) in the period. Against Cal State Northridge last weekend, Edelstein went 9-14 with a home run and three stolen bases.

“He came out of nowhere,” Terhune said. “He’s a great athlete. It’s about time he got the chance he was looking for.”
Brontsema added, “Edelstein’s taking advantage of his opportunities. [His offense] has really been something that we needed.”

Ace left-handed junior Mario Hollands will start tonight for the Gauchos in the first game of the series. Hollands has pitched a conference-leading three complete games this season and needs only eight more strikeouts to tie right-handed senior Mike Ford for the 10th most in UCSB’s history. Saturday’s pitcher is yet to be determined for the Gauchos, but right-handed junior Jesse Meaux will take the mound again on Sunday. Meaux has collected a team-high seven wins — the third most in the Big West.

For the Anteaters, inflamed rib muscles will keep Anteater ace Daniel Bibona, who is arguably the best pitcher in the conference, out of the lineup tonight. Bibona has dominated the Big West this season, leading the conference in five categories including strikeouts (100), ERA (2.10), opposing batting average (.208) and innings pitched (90).

Right-hander Christian Bergman will start instead. In 72.1 innings, Bergman has earned a 5-3 record and a 5.10 ERA.
With Irvine’s best pitcher off the mound, Terhune is optimistic about the series.

“This is an opportunity to finish the season with some confidence,” Terhune added. “We can show some of these younger guys [how] to learn from these mistakes [that we have made]. Just [got to] go out there and play ball.”