UC Irvine plated a pair of runs in each of the final three innings to claim an 8-7 comeback win over UC Santa Barbara on Friday afternoon at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.

The Gauchos (14-18, 3-5 Big West) led 7-2 heading into the seventh thanks to a five-run sixth inning, but the Anteaters (13-18, 2-3) jumped on the UCSB bullpen for six runs on six hits over the final three frames, ultimately evening the series ahead of Saturday’s rubber match.

UCSB’s relief corps didn’t help itself with four walks and a hit-by pitch, as UCI’s decisive rally in the ninth was opened by a leadoff hit-by pitch before Cole Krueter singled to put both the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

After a botched sac bunt resulted in the first out of the inning, the Gauchos looked like they might get out of it when Dailin Lee hit a potential double play ball, but UCSB shortstop JJ Muno’s throw to second was wide of the bag allowing a run to come in. The Anteaters plated the game-winning run moments later with a sac fly to left.

The UCSB defense did its part in the eighth inning to temporarily hold off the Anteaters, with Tommy Jew making a great diving catch in shallow center and Muno making a nice leaping catch of a Parker Coss liner to limit the damage in that frame to two runs.

Trying to mount a comeback of their own in the ninth, UCSB had a chance at tying it and sending it to extras after Colton Burns led off with a solid single, but the Gauchos couldn’t bring him home as UCI closer Calvin Faucher retired the final three batters of the game in order to pick up his league-leading ninth save of the year.

UCI’s turnaround spoiled what was a solid effort from the UCSB offense and starter Kyle Nelson over the first six innings of the game.

Nelson wasn’t at his absolute best, walking three, but surrendered just three hits and one earned run over his six innings of work. The junior lefty turned in 1-2-3 innings in the second, fourth, and sixth, and did a nice job of limiting damage after allowing runners into scoring position in the first, third, and fifth.

UCI’s only damage against Nelson came in the third, as All-American DH Keston Hiura drove a triple into the right-center gap to plate a pair. Nelson bounced back from that three-bagger by inducing a groundout to third and an inning-ending lineout to Kenny Corey to strand Hiura at third.

“We had some momentum when Nelly came out of the game, and we weren’t able to sustain that on the mound,” said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. “I don’t think it’s a physical issue or a command issue. We’re just going to have to dig into the mental piece of it a little bit.”

UCSB punched back after the Anteaters’ two-run fourth, tying the score on a two-run base hit off the bat of Corey under the glove of UCI shortstop Mikey Duarte. Austin Bush and Armani Smith reached earlier in the inning on a single and double, respectively.

The Gauchos then took a sizable lead with a big sixth inning, plating five runs on five hits off of UCI starter Louis Raymond. The pivotal play in that inning came with a runner on first and no outs, as Kenny Corey laid down a sac bunt in front of the plate. UCI catcher Alex Guenette pump-faked his throw to first as his second baseman was late coming to the bag, and when he eventually got rid of it he uncorked it into right field for a run-scoring error.

UCSB capitalized on that mistake by making consistently-hard contact off Raymond. Friday’s four-RBI man, DH Sam Cohen, started off the hit parade with a booming RBI triple off the right fence, Jew followed with a run-scoring single, then catcher Dempsey Grover ripped an inside pitch into the left field corner for an RBI double. Billy Fredrick capped the scoring with an RBI single to right, giving him hits in 10 straight contests.

The UCI bullpen combined to hold the Gauchos to one hit over the final 3 1/3 innings.

UCSB will aim for the series win in tomorrow’s 1:00 p.m. rubber match behind right-hander Chris Clements (1-5, 5.66 ERA), who will be opposed by UCI righty Chris Vargas (0-2, 4.91 ERA).