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For Cal Poly Baseball in 2015: A Tale of Two Different Seasons

For Cal Poly Baseball in 2015: A Tale of Two Different Seasons


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — For the Cal Poly baseball team, the 2015 season started about six weeks too early -- about the time it took Mark Mathias to return to his customary position at second base.

One year after their most successful season ever -- 47 wins, initial Big West championship and regional host for the first time -- the Mustangs lost six of their first seven games, committed 36 errors in their first 20 games and hit just .253 while falling eight games below the .500 mark.

On March 31, Mathias, the 2014 Big West Conference Field Player of the Year who missed the first seven games of his junior season as he recovered from labrum surgery in early December, ended five weeks of play as Cal Poly's designated hitter by starting at second base. That move triggered several other changes in the Mustang lineup as Brian Mundell moved from first base to designated hitter, Zack Zehner went from right field to left field, John Schuknecht switched from third base to right field and Ryan Drobny and Tommy Pluschkell were inserted into the starting lineup at first base and third base, respectively.

As a result, the Mustangs hit .303 over their final 23 games, improved their defense by fielding at a .980 clip, won 17 of their final 26 games (including 13 of 15 at home) and made a run for the Big West title before settling for a fourth-place finish and a break-even 27-27 record. Cal Poly has finished fourth or higher in the Big West 12 times in its last 14 seasons.

"We just could never recover from our 1-6 start," said 13-year Mustang head coach Larry Lee. "We struggled early and didn't start playing well until Mathias came back. By the time we got him back  at second base, we started playing much better. Before then, we made too many errors, but from the Oregon State series on, we played pretty well."

Cal Poly, which committed only 27 errors in its last 34 games, played 21 errorless games this season and finished second in the Big West in fewest errors made (63), won two of three games at Oregon State, one of seven Mustang opponents to earn regional berths this week, and ended up winning six series this year -- Pacific, Oregon State, Hawaii (sweep), Long Beach State, CSUN and UC Riverside (sweep) -- along with a 2-2 split against Sacramento State.

"Mathias' return completely changed our defensive lineup," Lee said. "Once he was at second base, we were able to put players in positions where they had a chance to be much more successful. The defensive changes affected our hitting as well. You never realize how valuable one key player can be. Getting Mathias back at second base was the main reason for our turnaround."

The Mustang pitching staff compiled a 4.11 ERA, the highest in five years. Seven of the 13 pitchers used this season were freshmen and Cal Poly used seven different hurlers as a starter in the final games of weekend series.

"We were searching for a Sunday and Tuesday starter throughout the course of the year," said Lee. "We didn't have the depth that we needed. Taylor Chris found his stride in the last half of the season and some freshmen pitched well. Kyle Smith pitched in a lot of key games for us. When it came to performances in crunch time, the pitchers developed as season progressed."

After an 0-2 start, junior right-hander Casey Bloomquist won his final eight decisions as the Mustangs' Friday night starter, including a 6-0 mark in Big West games, and Cal Poly was 11-0 in his last 11 starts of the season. Smith, a southpaw, posted a 5-7 mark and 3.95 ERA as the Saturday starter in his first season as a Mustang while freshman righty Jarred Zill, who started six midweek games, was 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA. Among the closers, both seniors, Chris was 3-3 with a 4.74 ERA and one save while Danny Zandona compiled a 1-4 mark,  and 2.95 ERA with seven saves.

"With Bloomquist and Smith on the mound, we were good enough to beat anybody," said Lee, "but we didn't have the depth pitching-wise to finish off the weekend. We still finished in the upper half of the Big West and four games over .500 at 14-10. We were in a number of games in which we had a chance to win or sweep the series, and we were in most every conference game, but we just didn't quite have enough to finish the job."

Cases in point: letting a 1-0 lead slip away in the sixth inning at Cal State Fullerton by allowing two unearned runs in a 2-1 loss; allowing five runs in the eighth inning as UC Santa Barbara turned a 6-3 deficit into an 8-7 win; squandering a 9-2 lead in a 10-inning 12-11 loss to Long Beach State; and letting a 5-1 third-inning advantage get away in a 9-6 setback at UC Irvine.

Cal Poly won each of its four Big West series at home, compiling a 10-2 mark, but lost all four conference road series, two games to one, despite winning the opener each time.

Cal Poly, which loses six seniors -- Zandona, Chris, Zehner, Pluschkell, center fielder Jordan Ellis and pitcher Michael Dingilian -- also could lose several draft-eligible juniors along with Drobny, a redshirt junior who will graduate in June and pursue his MBA in the fall. Depending on the impact of the 2015 MLB Draft, scheduled for June 8-10, Mustang fans could see an all-freshman infield and three new outfielders next spring.

"We definitely will have a new look for next year with a lot of first-year players having to step up and be able to compete and perform at this level early," said Lee. "It's a good recruiting class that is coming in, and a large one too, but because they are freshmen, you never know what they bring to the table until you start playing regular season games. There is a lot of unpredictability."

For the second straight year, Mathias was Cal Poly's batting champion with a .356 average, produced a team-long 19-game hitting streak and also led the team with nine steals in 13 attempts. Junior shortstop Peter Van Gansen posted a .314 mark with 10 doubles, is ranked No. 18 in the NCAA in toughest to strike out (once every 15.7 at-bats) and committed just four errors, the fewest among shortstops in the Big West. He had hitting streaks of eight and 11 games this season.

Ellis hit safely in 16 of his last 18 games, including a 13-game hitting streak, going 23-for-65 (.354) to lift his average 23 points to .305. He finished with six triples for the season, best in the Big West, and 12 for his Mustang career, tied for No. 5 all-time at Cal Poly. Pluschkell posted a .283 mark, improving his average 31 points by going 12-for-28 (.429) over the last eight games of the season, including five two-hit contests and his first collegiate homer, a two-run shot against UC Riverside on May 15. Mundell was 8-for-18 (.444) over his final five games of the year, bumping his average up 19 points to .282.

Zehner hit .304 and led the Mustangs in home runs with nine and RBI with 45. He hit in 15 of 16 games late in the season, including a 12-game hitting streak, and went 25-for-65 (.385) during the run to lift his average 48 points. Drobny hit .256, Schuknecht .237 and catcher Brett Barbier .253 with nine doubles, four triples, three home runs and 34 RBI, including 28 RBI over the final seven weeks of the season. Barbier also threw out 17 of 37 would-be base stealers (46 percent).

Cal Poly was hitting .247 and was 7-14 on the year after dropping a 7-1 decision at home to Dartmouth on March 23. The Mustangs were as low as eight games under the .500 mark (10-18) after losing two of three games at Cal State Fullerton on April 2-4. Since then, Cal Poly hit .303 and closed out the year with 17 wins in 26 games, finishing fourth in the Big West in hitting (.279). The Mustangs also were third in fielding (.970) but seventh in  pitching (4.11 ERA).

Coming off a school-record 47-win campaign and its first Big West title, Cal Poly carried a national ranking as high as No. 13 into its opening series at Baylor, but the Mustangs were swept by the Bears as well as Grand Canyon at home the following week. Cal Poly was 26-21 since the 1-6 start, moving above the .500 mark for the first time this season by sweeping UC Riverside two weeks ago but falling back to the break-even mark by losing two of three games at UC Davis on the final weekend of the season.

Cal Poly has produced 13 non-losing seasons in the last 16 years and has compiled ten 30-victory campaigns since and including 2000. The Mustangs were  17-11 at home this season and have won 113 of their last 148 home games for a winning percentage of 76.4 percent.

Lee (422-309-2), head coach of the Mustangs for 13 seasons, has guided Cal Poly to 11 finishes in the upper half of the Big West standings in the last 13 years. He earned his 400th win March 7 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.

Photo above of Mark Mathias courtesy of Ray Ambler | RA Photos