SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (16-19, 6-3 Big West), which has opened Big West play with two-to-one series wins against UC Irvine, Hawai'i and UC Davis and has won eight of its last 11 games after an 8-16 start, resumes Big West competition this weekend with a three-game series against No. 8 Cal State Fullerton (23-12, 5-1 Big West) inside Baggett Stadium (cap.: 2,800).
First pitches are set for 6 p.m. both Friday and Saturday and 1 o'clock Sunday. All three games of the series will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Chris Sylvester providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and audio and video streams are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Despite having 25 freshmen and sophomores on the roster a year ago, including as many as six true freshmen and a community college transfer in the starting lineup, Cal Poly posted a 32-25 mark in 2016, won nine of 15 weekend series, including victories over No. 14 UCLA and No. 19 Michigan and a sweep against College World Series participant UC Santa Barbara.
Eight position players who started at least 27 games a year ago are on the 2017 roster and the pitching rotation features all four returning starters off the 2016 squad, including weekend starters Erich Uelmen (5-3, 3.68 ERA), Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64 ERA) and Jarred Zill (4-3, 2.79 ERA). Sophomore right-hander Cam Schneider also returns after starting seven games a year ago.
Despite the presence of a large number of veterans, the Mustangs struggled in all facets of the game during their season-opening 11-game road trip. The pitching staff's ERA was 5.50 with opposing batters hitting a robust .286. Defensively, Cal Poly committed five errors in the middle game at Pacific, three more in three other contests and sported a .955 fielding percentage with 18 errors in the 11 games.
And the offense struggled as well, as the Mustangs hit just .233 and were shut out four times. During one stretch, Cal Poly failed to score in 25 consecutive innings, a school Division I record. Pacific and San Diego State both blanked the Mustangs twice en route to series sweeps.
The numbers improved during Cal Poly's 12-game home stand inside Baggett Stadium -- the team splitting the 12 contests -- and the Mustangs have hit .316 in their first nine Big West games in addition to compiling a 3.59 staff ERA and a .972 fielding percentage with just 10 errors.
Last week, the Mustangs blanked Santa Clara 15-0 to close out a four-game home stand, then earned its third consecutive Big West series win, two games to one, at UC Davis. On Tuesday night, Cal Poly clinched its midweek series against CSU Bakersfield with a 10-2 triumph, scoring all of its runs in the first three innings. Alex McKenna hit his third homer of the year, Bradlee Beesley drove in four runs with a bases-loaded triple and a sacrifice fly and southpaw Kyle Smith earned his first win of the season, allowing one run and five hits over 5 2/3 innings with three strikeouts.
Cal State Fullerton has won non-conference series against Stanford, Houston, Gonzaga, UNLV and New Mexico but was swept in a non-conference series against Big West rival Long Beach State in late March. The Titans bounced back with a Big West series win at UC Riverside and swept UC Davis before taking two of three against USC before falling to San Diego 11-6 on Tuesday.
Cal State Fullerton has 21 returning lettermen -- five position starters and six pitchers -- off last year's 36-23 squad which finished first in the Big West at 17-7 and qualified for the NCAA Division I Starkville Regional, going 1-2. Among the returnees are shortstop Timmy Richards (.280, 12 doubles, nine home runs, 31 RBI in 2016), center fielder Scott Hurst (.215, 15 RBI) and right fielder Ruben Cardenas (.233, 10 doubles, 28 RBI).
Cal State Fullerton's pitching staff is anchored by right-handers Connor Seabold (7-6, 2.48 ERA in 2016) and Colton Eastman (8-3, 2.24 ERA) along with southpaw John Gavin (6-3, 2.09 ERA), who combined for 42 starts a year ago.
So far this season, second baseman Sahid Valenzuela leads the Titans offensively with a .366 average and has driven in 14 runs, followed by left fielder Hunter Cullen (.341, 18 RBI), Hurst (.305, nine doubles, three triples, four home runs, 22 RBI) and third baseman Taylor Bryant (.298, 12 doubles, 22 RBI).
On the mound, Gavin is 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA while Seabold is 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA. Eastman has been sidelined since the third week of the season with tendinitis in his throwing arm. Gavin Velasquez (3-0, 2.90 ERA) and Blake Workman (4-1, 2.93 ERA), both right-handers, have filled the void. Seabold will start Friday night, followed by Gavin on Saturday and Velasquez on Sunday.
Coached by Rick Vanderhook (sixth season, 219-115, Trinity '03), Cal State Fullerton has a .273 team batting average through 35 games. The Titans have stolen 34 of 42 bases, sports a 3.29 staff ERA and has compiled a .981 fielding percentage with 25 errors in 35 games.
Cal State Fullerton has won 29 conference titles in 42 Division I seasons, has appeared in 38 regionals, including each of the last 25 years, along with 12 Super Regionals and 17 College World Series, capturing national championships in 1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004.
Cal State Fullerton is 587-189 since late 1992 at Goodwin Field and has never had a losing season in 42 Division I seasons.
Vanderhook returned home to Cal State Fullerton on June 24, 2011, where he spent the better part of a quarter century as a player and assistant coach under head coaches Augie Garrido, Larry Cochell and George Horton; he was also an assistant coach alongside now-departed head coach Dave Serrano from 1997-2004 and spent three seasons as an assistant coach to John Savage at UCLA from 2009-11.
Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton have met 107 times on the baseball field since the series began when both teams were California Collegiate Athletic Association members back in 1966. The Titans hold a 66-41 advantage, though Cal Poly won two of three games at Baggett Stadium a year ago, bouncing back from a 2-1 loss in the opener with 1-0 and 6-3 wins. Cal Poly swept the 2014 series in Baggett Stadium and has enjoyed some recent success with 14 victories in the last 30 meetings over the last 10 seasons, winning series at home in 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2016.
Cal Poly is 19-54 against Cal State Fullerton since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season. Larry Lee is 15-27 against Cal State Fullerton while Rick Vanderhook is 7-8 as a head coach against Cal Poly.
Cal Poly's 2017 roster is led by seven returning position starters and eight pitchers who tossed 20 or more innings in 2016.
Outfielder Josh George (.306, seven doubles, 16 RBI in 2016) and catcher Nick Meyer (.301, seven doubles, 21 RBI) both hit above the .300 mark a year ago. Meyer was a second-team All-Big West selection and also was named Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year after picking off a Big West-leading 10 runners and threw out 22 would-be base stealers, second in the conference.
Middle infielder Kyle Marinconz (.284, 15 doubles, 25 RBI), an All-Big West honorable mention, joined Meyer on Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team. Third baseman Michael Sanderson (.296, 12 doubles, 33 RBI), a second-team All-Big West selection in 2016, outfielder Kevin Morgan (.269, 15 RBI), outfielder Alex McKenna (.261, six home runs, 27 RBI) and shortstop Brett Binning (.225) also return.
A pair of true freshmen -- infielder Bradlee Beesley (.407, 19 RBI at San Leandro High School) and outfielder/designated hitter Scott Ogrin (.412, 18 RBI at Valencia High School) -- were in the starting lineup on Opening Day along with community college transfer Elijah Skipps (Cypress College) at first base.
Cal Poly's top hitter through 35 games is McKenna with a .364 mark, including eight doubles, three home runs and 21 RBI. He is 22-for-46 (.478) over his last 10 games with eight multiple-hit contests. Sanderson is hitting .360 with seven doubles and 12 RBI, going 34-for-86 (.395) over his last 21 games.
Beesley is hitting .306 with nine doubles, going 37-for-105 (.352) since and including the final game of the San Diego State series when he produced his first four-hit game. He was hitting .160 prior to that contest March 5. Meyer owns a .261 average with a team-leading 23 RBI while George, who broke out of a 0-for-22 slump with two hits in the finale of the Nebraska series and three more at Fresno State, is hitting at a .262 clip with eight doubles and 21 RBI. Shortstop Kyle Marinconz has a .241 average with 13 extra-base hits and 22 RBI.
Uelmen, who has struck out 53 batters over 55 1/3 innings, leads the Mustang pitching corps. His record is just 2-5 because in a recent streak of three consecutive starts over 20 2/3 innings, he received zero runs from his teammates. Four weeks ago against Wichita State, he pitched seven strong innings with 10 strikeouts but was not involved in the 13-inning decision, a 5-4 Mustang win. He gave up two earned runs and four hits over six innings in a 3-2 loss to Nebraska four weeks ago and one earned run and seven hits over six frames in a non-decision 10-inning 3-2 win at UC Irvine three weeks ago. Uelmen's first win was in the season opener at Cal on Feb. 18 and he finally notched win No. 2 last week at UC Davis, giving up one run and five hits over six innings.
Howard (2-1, 1.79 ERA, second-best in the Big West) picked up his first win with seven scoreless innings against Wichita State five weeks ago, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts, and earned his second win in the Hawai'i series, allowing three hits and striking out nine over 5 2/3 innings. Sophomore righty Bobby Ay (1-3, 4.08 ERA) earned his first win April 9 against Hawai'i, pitching into the eighth inning for the first time and allowing a run and five hits with six strikeouts.
A year ago Cal Poly earned its 14th winning season since 2000 and reached the 30-win mark for the 11th time this century. The Mustangs were 23-8 at home last season and have won 140 of their last 186 home games for a winning percentage of 75.3 percent. Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, has finished fourth or higher in the Big West 12 times in its last 14 seasons, including back-to-back fourth-place finishes after capturing its first Big West championship in 2014.
Lee (471-355-2) earned his 400th win March 7, 2015, at Pacific and surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. Lee's previous 14 clubs at Cal Poly have averaged 32.5 wins per season. Lee earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and, in his 15th season at Cal Poly, notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13 against Gonzaga.
In addition to the four games already played against Pac-12 schools, Cal Poly's 2017 schedule also includes a three-game set at UCLA in late April. The schedule features 14 games against 2016 NCAA regional qualifiers, a 12-game home stand in March and 28 contests in all inside Baggett Stadium. All 56 Mustang games this spring will be played in the Golden State.
Next week, Cal Poly closes out a four-game home stand Tuesday night by hosting Fresno State, then visits UCLA for a three-game non-conference series Friday through Sunday at Jackie Robinson Stadium.