SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (23-27, 11-7 Big West), which rebounded from its first Big West series loss of the year by defeating CSUN, two games to one, and has won 15 of its last 26 games after an 8-16 start to the 2017 season, plays its final road series of the year this weekend with a three-game Big West set at Blue-Green rival UC Santa Barbara (22-27, 7-11 Big West) inside Caesar Uyesaka Stadium (cap.: 1,000).
First pitches for the series are set for 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and noon 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 returned after starting seven games a year ago.
After winning just twice during a season-opening 11-game road trip, Cal Poly posted a 6-6 mark in a 12-game home stand in March. Since the start of Big West play on the final day of March, the Mustangs have hit .293, have outscored the opposition 139-111, have compiled a 3.67 ERA and 15-11 record and own a .974 fielding percentage with 26 errors in the 26 games.
Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the .253 average, 42 errors and 121 runs surrendered en route to an 8-16 record in the first 24 games of the season.
Last week, the Mustangs fell to Pepperdine 6-1 in their final midweek contest of the year, then won two of three Big West games at home against CSUN over the weekend. Cal Poly won the first two games by 6-5 and 5-2 scores before dropping the finale 12-3. Nick Meyer's walk-off two-out single to left field knocked in the winning run Friday night while Spencer Howard tossed a complete-game seven-hitter with 10 strikeouts Saturday night. CSUN erupted for 16 hits and scored all 12 runs in the second through fifth innings for Sunday's victory.
Similar to Cal Poly in 2017, UC Santa Barbara won its opener at Loyola Marymount 6-3 but has struggled to reach the .500 mark since. The Gauchos swept Tulane during the second week of the season, then lost seven of eight games to fall five games below the break-even point and has lost five of its last six games. A College World Series participant a year ago, UC Santa Barbara owns series wins against Tulane, Stony Brook, New Mexico State and UC Irvine while falling to LMU, Kentucky, BYU, Long Beach State, CSUN and its last four series against San Diego State, UC Riverside, UC Davis and Cal State Fullerton.
The Gauchos, who defeated USC 6-5 on Wednesday night, won the middle game of their series at Cal State Fullerton, 6-3, as Austin Bush belted two home runs, knocking in four runs. The Titans sandwiched the loss with 8-4 and 12-3 victories to remain in second place in the Big West at 12-6, three games behind frontrunner Long Beach State (15-3). Cal Poly (11-7) is another game back in third place.
UC Santa Barbara has 17 returning lettermen -- eight position starters and eight pitchers -- off last year's 43-20-1 squad which finished third in the Big West at 13-11, a game ahead of the fourth-place Mustangs. Among the returnees are shortstop JJ Muno (.294, five home runs, 31 RBI in 2016), first baseman Bush (.265, 11 home runs, 49 RBI) and catcher Dempsey Grover (.273, 29 RBI). Infielder Clay Fisher (.285, 24 RBI) also returned but is out for the season following elbow surgery.
UCSB's pitching staff is anchored by sophomore right-hander Noah Davis (7-4, 4.46 ERA in 2016) and junior southpaw Kyle Nelson (7-2, 2.18 ERA, 10 saves).
So far this season, second baseman Colton Burns leads the Gauchos at the plate with a .313 average, three home runs and 13 RBI, but missed seven games over the last two weeks before returning to the lineup at USC on Wednesday. Kenny Corey (.310, 19 RBI) has taken over for Fisher at third base and Arlani Smith (.290, nine doubles, 22 RBI) moved from right field to second base the last two weeks to replace Burns. Grover is hitting .290 with 14 RBI, designated hitter Sam Cohen .289 with eight homers and 23 RBI, Bush .292 with 10 doubles, 15 home runs and 48 RBI and center fielder Tommy Jew .285 with 25 RBI.
Nelson sports a 6-4 record and 4.76 ERA while Davis is 6-3 with a 4.33 ERA. Chris Clements (1-7, 6.79 ERA) has given way to Chris Lincoln (1-3, 4.15 ERA), a freshman right-hander, the last three weeks on Sundays. Shea Barry and Alex Garcia, both right-handers, have four saves each. Davis is expected to start Friday while UCSB has not announced starters for Saturday or Sunday.
Coached by Andrew Checketts (sixth season, 202-134-4, Oregon State '98), UCSB has a .274 team batting average with 43 home runs (second in the Big West) through 49 games. The Gauchos have stolen 37 of 59 bases, sport a 5.15 staff ERA and have compiled a .967 fielding percentage with 60 errors in 49 games.
UCSB claimed Big West titles in 1972 and 1986 and has qualified for the NCAA Division I regionals 10 times, including 2013, 2015 and 2016, compiling a 13-24 win-loss record in Division I postseason competition, including 6-2 a year ago en route to regional and super regional triumphs and a berth in the College World Series.
Checketts spent three seasons as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under George Horton at Oregon before coming to UC Santa Barbara. He was on the UC Riverside staff for seven years and began his coaching career at Riverside Community College, where he served as pitching coach and helped the team to their second consecutive California State championship in 2001. Checketts played one season at Florida and three at Oregon State.
Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara have met 223 times on the baseball field since the series began when both teams were California Collegiate Athletic Association members back in 1942. The Gauchos hold a 119-104 advantage, winning two of three at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in 2015. Cal Poly swept the then-No. 9-ranked Gauchos in Baggett Stadium last spring by scores of 7-0, 10-5 and 4-3.
Cal Poly is 50-44 against UCSB since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season. Larry Lee is 34-23 against UC Santa Barbara while Andrew Checketts is 7-12 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 (pictured above) 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 50 games is McKenna with a .362 mark, including 11 doubles, five home runs and 30 RBI with 26 multiple-hit games. He is 46-for-113 (.407) over his last 25 games with 16 multiple-hit contests. Sanderson is hitting .327 with 10 doubles, a triple, a pair of home runs and 24 RBI, going 49-for-143 (.343) over his last 36 games after hitting .242 in the first nine contests of the year.
Beesley is hitting .319 with 13 doubles and three triples, going 58-for-166 (.349) since and including the middle game of the San Diego State series when he produced his first four-hit game. He was hitting .160 prior to that contest March 4. Marinconz has lifted his average 21 points over the last 14 games to .255 by going 17-for-55 (.309) while George owns a .255 mark as well with nine doubles and 23 RBI. Skipps went 6-for-13 last week to bump his average up 22 points to .250.
Uelmen, who has struck out 80 batters over 81 1/3 innings, leads the Mustang pitching corps. His record is just 2-8 because in an early-season stretch of three consecutive starts over 20 2/3 innings, he received zero runs from his teammates and Cal Poly also was shut out in his start May 5 at Long Beach State. Nine 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 eight weeks ago and one earned run and seven hits over six frames in a non-decision 10-inning 3-2 win at UC Irvine seven weeks ago. Uelmen's first win was in the season opener at Cal on Feb. 18 and he finally notched win No. 2 five weeks ago at UC Davis, giving up one run and five hits over six innings.
Howard (6-1, 2.24 ERA, second-best in the Big West), who started the season in the bullpen, picked up his first win with seven scoreless innings against Wichita State nine weeks ago, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts, and earned his second win in the Hawai'i series, his third against Cal State Fullerton, his fourth at UCLA, his fifth two weeks ago at Long Beach State and his sixth with a complete-game seven-hitter and 10 strikeouts last week against CSUN. Sophomore righty Bobby Ay (1-6, 5.40 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 150 of their last 203 home games for a winning percentage of 73.9 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 (478-363-2) 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.
Cal Poly has played seven games against Pac-12 teams this season, winning one of three in the season-opening series at Cal, falling at Stanford on Feb. 23 and losing two of three contests at UCLA. The schedule also featured 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 wraps up the 2017 season Thursday through Saturday by hosting UC Riverside.