SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (20-23, 8-4 Big West), which has opened Big West play with four consecutive two-to-one series wins and has won 12 of its last 19 games after an 8-16 start to the 2017 season, resumes its conference schedule this weekend with a three-game series at first-place and No. 8/12 Long Beach State (28-14-1, 13-2 Big West) inside Blair Field (cap.: 3,000).
First pitches are set for 6 p.m Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. 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 an audio stream 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 .314, have outscored the opposition 116-75, have compiled a 3.27 ERA and 12-7 record and own a .977 fielding percentage with 17 errors in the 19 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 Fresno State 6-3 in a midweek contest, then dropped two of three games at UCLA over the weekend. Cal Poly won the middle game 6-3, sandwiched by one-run losses -- 2-1 on Friday night and 5-4 on Sunday afternoon. The Mustangs hit .287 in the series, compiled a 2.52 staff ERA and outscored UCLA 11-10. Shortstop Kyle Marinconz went 6-for-12, third baseman Bradlee Beesley 6-for-13 with a double and first baseman Michael Sanderson and center fielder Alex McKenna both were 5-for-13. Cal Poly defeated Pepperdine 5-3 Tuesday night in Baggett Stadium, overcoming an early 2-0 deficit.
Long Beach State bounced back from a 5-1 loss to UCLA by sweeping host UC Davis last weekend by scores of 14-9, 9-3 and 10-2, outscoring the Aggies 33-14 with 46 hits and sweeping UC Davis for the third straight year. The Dirtbags and San Diego battle to a 10-inning 9-9 draw Tuesday in a game called after 4 hours, 25 minutes, due to a curfew. Long Beach State is ranked anywhere from Nos. 8-12 in the various Division I polls this week and owns series wins over Fordham, North Carolina, Cal State Fullerton (non-conference), UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside, CSUN, UC Irvine and UC Davis. The Dirtbags lost series against Oklahoma and Arizona State.
Long Beach State has 19 lettermen returning off last year's 38-22 squad that finished second in the Big West at 15-9 and qualified for the Coral Gables Regional, finishing 2-2. Among the returnees are seven position starters and four pitchers.
Top returning position player include first baseman/catcher Daniel Jackson (.321, six home runs, 34 RBI in 2016), designated hitter Luke Rasmussen (.305, five home runs, 46 RBI), outfielder Brock Lundquist (.315, 18 doubles, 36 RBI) and catcher David Banuelos (.299, 26 RBI). The pitching staff is paced by 2016 Big West Pitcher of the Year Darren McCaughan (10-1, 2.03 ERA in 2016), a junior right-hander, along with closer Chris Rivera (2-2, 4.60 ERA, 13 saves).
Third baseman Ramsey Romano leads the Dirtbags so far this season with a .359 average, including eight doubles and 29 RBI, while left fielder Lucas Tancas is hitting 316 with eight home runs and 25 RBI. Banuelos sports a .316 mark as well with six home runs and 22 RBI while shortstop Laine Huffman owns a .307 mark with 21 RBI.
Coached by Troy Buckley (seventh season, 214-169, Santa Clara '90), Long Beach State is hitting .277 as a team with 26 home runs, has stolen 52 of 81 bases, has compiled a 3.18 staff ERA and owns a .978 fielding percentage with 35 errors in 43 games. The Dirtbags have claimed eight Big West titles (the last in 2008), and have made 21 NCAA regional appearances and four trips to the College World Series, the last in 1998.
Long Beach State defeated Cal Poly two games to one for four consecutive years until the Mustangs won two of three in 2015 at Baggett Stadium. The Dirtbags swept Cal Poly at Blair Field a year ago by scores of 14-3, 2-0 and 4-1. This year's Dirtbags are 14-3 at Blair Field and 14-11-1 on the road. Former Dirtbags in the Major Leagues include Jason Giambi, Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki and Jered Weaver.
Buckley, a 10-year pitching coach for the Dirtbags before he was hired as head coach prior to the 2011 season, previously served three years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Santa Clara. He was a coach in the Montreal Expos organization from 1996 to 1997. Buckley was a ninth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1989, spending three years in the Twins organization, and was 1988 West Coast Conference Player of the Year and a second-team All-American as a catcher at Santa Clara.
Cal Poly and Long Beach State have met 143 times on the baseball field since the series began when both teams were California Collegiate Athletic Association members back in 1957. The Dirtbags hold a 92-51 advantage. Long Beach State was 16-2 in a six-year stretch against the Mustangs until Cal Poly won two of three in 2009, its first series win at Blair Field since 1997, and also won two of three in 2010 and 2015 in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly is 18-50 against Long Beach State since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season.
Larry Lee is 12-30 against Long Beach State while Troy Buckley is 12-6 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 43 games is McKenna with a .372 mark, including 10 doubles, five home runs and 28 RBI with 23 multiple-hit games. He is 37-for-83 (.446) over his last 18 games with 13 multiple-hit contests. Sanderson is hitting .350 with nine doubles, a triple, one home run and 20 RBI, going 44-for-118 (.373) over his last 29 games.
Beesley is hitting .333 with 12 doubles and two triples, going 52-for-140 (.371) 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 (pictured above) has lifted his average 30 points over the last seven games to .264 by going 11-for-26 (.423) while George owns a .253 with nine doubles and 22 RBI, Meyer .248 average with 25 RBI and Skipps .237 with 15 RBI, going 9-for-26 (.346) over his last nine games.
Uelmen, who has struck out 65 batters over 68 1/3 innings, leads the Mustang pitching corps. His record is just 2-7 because in an early-season stretch of three consecutive starts over 20 2/3 innings, he received zero runs from his teammates. Seven 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 six weeks ago and one earned run and seven hits over six frames in a non-decision 10-inning 3-2 win at UC Irvine five weeks ago. Uelmen's first win was in the season opener at Cal on Feb. 18 and he finally notched win No. 2 three weeks ago at UC Davis, giving up one run and five hits over six innings.
Howard (4-1, 2.24 ERA, second-best in the Big West) picked up his first win with seven scoreless innings against Wichita State seven weeks ago, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts, and earned his second win in the Hawai'i series, his third against Cal State Fullerton and his fourth last week at UCLA. Sophomore righty Bobby Ay (1-4, 4.89 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 147 of their last 199 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 (475-359-2) 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 two 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 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 plays its final midweek game Tuesday at Pepperdine and returns home to host CSUN on Friday through Sunday.
Photo above of Kyle Marinconz courtesy of Ray Ambler | RA Photos