UCSB short stop, Jordan Sprinkle fields a ball during the Gauchos win over Cal Poly Sunday afternoon at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Expectations were high coming into the 2021 season for the UCSB baseball team, and with the majority of the regular season completed, a special season is still on the table as the Gauchos begin a decisive stretch of Big West conference play.

UCSB (29-13 overall, 20-8 Big West conference) is currently looking up in the standings at first-place UC Irvine (26-14, 18-6), whose Anteaters will be in town for a four-game series beginning Friday for what figures to be a season-defining showdown.

“It’s a big weekend. They’re ahead of us; we all know it; everybody can look and see that. It’s the elephant in the room,” said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. “They’re good, and we’re going to have to come out and play well.”

After going 13-2 in the abbreviated 2020 season, including a victory over No. 1-ranked UCLA, the Gauchos returned nearly every player on their roster and came into the season ranked in the top 10 in some of the preseason polls.

In 2021, the Gauchos have performed well but lack the signature victories out of conference that would give them margin for error in terms of an NCAA tournament berth. With an RPI of 66 and zero Quadrant 1 wins heading into the UC Irvine series, the Gauchos will likely need the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament that is awarded to the Big West Champion.

Injuries to key players, including middle infielders Marcos Castanon and McClain O’Connor, have played a major role in UCSB’s season. Add in the loss of Friday starter Zach Torra, and it’s undeniable that the Gauchos have faced major adversity.

“We had some key injuries,” said Checketts of O’Connor, his leadoff hitter, and Castanon, the team’s strongest batter. “The guys that have filled in for them have done a really nice job.”

A major bright spot this season has been the play of newcomers Broc Mortensen and Zach Rodriguez, who are now fixtures in the middle of the UCSB lineup and consistently produced. Mortensen is a Ventura High product who played football at Cal Poly his freshman year before switching to baseball and transferring to UCSB after a stint at Cuesta College. He leads the Gauchos with 10 home runs this season.

“I feel like it’s about taking care of our stuff on and off the field. Even though we’re new faces around here, we’ve been able take care of opportunities,” Mortensen said. “We’re not trying to press or do anything else; we’re just trying to play some baseball.”

Rodriguez is a freshman who leads the entire Big West conference with 39 RBI. He is also second on the team with a .372 batting average.

In addition, Jordan Sprinkle has done an admirable job as a middle infielder in the absence of O’Connor and Castanon, while hitting .364 and notching a Big West–leading 18 stolen bases.

This “next man up” mentality has served the Gauchos well.

“I think the guys have handled some of the adversity that they’ve had to deal with. The guys that have gotten their opportunities have made the most of it,” Checketts said. “We’re not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination.”

In the series with UC Irvine, the Gauchos will have a worthy opponent. The Anteaters are coming off a split of a four-game series with Long Beach State but boast a talented group and an impressive resume with victories over Pac 12 programs Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, and Washington this season.

“We’ve had some weekends or some games this year where we’ve just been able to out-talent people because we have a talented team, but that’s not going to be the case with Irvine,” said Checketts of the pivotal series.

The first game of the series with UC Irvine begins on Friday at 5 p.m. The two teams will play a doubleheader on Saturday in which the second game will be nationally televised on ESPNU beginning at 7 p.m.

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