SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly opened the year by losing nine of its first 11 games, all on the road. The Mustangs finished the campaign by winning 20 of their last 32 contests, all since the start of Big West Conference play March 31.
"It was a tale of two seasons," said Mustang head coach Larry Lee. "We got out to such a slow start and put ourselves in a big hole. Once conference season began, however, we played well. We won seven of eight conference series and won one game against Long Beach State. We cleaned up our game, played much better defense, led the conference in batting average and hits during conference play and pitched well, both from the standpoint of our starters and relievers."
Cal Poly was 8-16 when the Mustangs opened Big West play at UC Irvine and won two of three games, igniting a second-half surge that brought the Mustangs back to the .500 mark by the end of the year at 28-28. Cal Poly posted a 16-8 Big West mark for second place, four games behind Long Beach State (20-4) and one in front of Cal State Fullerton (15-9). The Mustangs have finished in the top four of the Big West standings 13 times in Lee's 15 seasons at the helm. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
"We weren't ready to play on the road at the beginning of the season," Lee said. "After going 2-9 in the first three weeks, our players' confidence was shot. It took a number of weeks to build it back up. We were not very productive on offense and we beat ourselves a lot because of our inability to play defense. It took us until conference time to shore up all facets of the game."
The Opening Day lineup had the same nine players as Lee used in the final game of the season against UC Riverside. Six Mustangs, however, were playing in different positions. Scott Ogrin eventually was moved from right field to second base, Bradlee Beesley went from shortstop to third base, Kyle Marinconz shifted from second base to shortstop, Michael Sanderson was forced to move from third base to first base due to an arm injury, Elijah Skipps went from first base to designated hitter and Kevin Morgan, who was the designated hitter on Opening Day, finished the season in right field.
"Ogrin going to second base solidified our season," said Lee, "and moving Marinconz over to shortstop gave us some consistency and intelligence (he made only seven errors in 245 chances all year at a critical position). We would have liked to keep Sanderson at third base, but he hurt his arm. He made us stronger at first base."
Outfielders Alex McKenna and Josh George played errorless defense all year and Nick Meyer continued to produce solid defensive numbers behind the plate. After catching 22 runners trying to steal and picking off 10 other runners en route to Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year honors a year ago, Meyer added 18 caught steals and four pickoffs as a sophomore this spring.
"Meyer is as good as anybody defensively in the West," Lee said of Meyer, who was invited to USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team last week. "Once we repositioned our defense, we were able to make more of the routine plays and have the ability to turn double plays.
"From an offensive standpoint, too many players were putting too much pressure on themselves," Lee added. "As soon as we moved McKenna from the No. 3 hole to leadoff, that solidified our batting order.
"Pitching-wise, I feel we wasted an opportunity with two quality arms at the top of the rotation. Erich Uelmen and Spencer Howard pitched extremely well for us all year, as did our three-headed bullpen of Slater Lee, Michael Clark and Trent Shelton before moving Shelton into the Sunday slot the last two weeks of the season. We actually were a pretty good regional team by the end of the season."
Facing the best pitcher the opposition could field every Friday night, Uelmen finished 4-8 with a 2.93 ERA, fifth-best in the Big West. His 100 strikeouts were No. 2 in the conference and Uelmen earned wins in his final two starts against UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. He was 2-8 after 13 weeks in part because the Mustangs were shut out four times and gave Uelmen very little run support in the other nine starts. Howard won his last five starts to close out an 8-1 campaign, becoming the first Mustang starter since Kyle Anderson in 2012 to finish the year with just one loss. Howard's 97 strikeouts is No. 3 in the Big West while his eight wins are No. 2.
Clark's 11 saves rank him third in the Big West, fourth all-time at Cal Poly, and he was 5-0 with a 2.59 ERA. Lee was 4-2 with a 2.86 ERA while Shelton finished 1-1, both decisions in the final two weeks of the year as a starter, with a 2.30 ERA.
McKenna closed out his sophomore campaign with a team-leading .360 batting average and his 85 hits, second-best in the Big West, missed Cal Poly's all-time top-10 list by one. He led the team with 30 multiple-hit games, including a four-hit contest against Cal State Fullerton, and 10 multiple-RBI games. Over his final 31 games this season, McKenna hit .396 (55-for-139) with 20 multiple-hit contests.
Sanderson posted a .323 average in his final season as a Mustang and was second with his 18 multiple-hit games and seven multiple-RBI contests. After hitting just .242 in the first nine games of his 2017 season, Sanderson went on a 55-for-164 tear (.335) in the final 42 games to elevate his average 81 points. He missed five games due to a groin pull and dislocated his left shoulder in the first inning of the season finale diving for a foul pop-up.
After a .172 start in the first nine games of the season, Beesley went .328 the rest of the way, including a pair of four-hit games, to finish at .305 with 13 doubles. Marinconz also put together a late-season surge, going 28-for-83 (.337) over the final five weeks to bump his average 39 points to .273, and led the team with his 32 RBI.
Cal Poly swept just one series this season -- at UC Santa Barbara in the penultimate series of the year -- and won eight of its 15 series overall. The Mustangs, however, were just 12-20 against non-conference opponents and won only one of the seven non-conference series -- against Wichita State in the fifth week of the season.
Cal Poly played 16 errorless games and were 10-6 in such contests but committed 71 errors in the remaining 40 games and posted an 18-22 mark. The Mustangs were 23-7 when outhitting the opposition but just 2-17 when the foes collected more hits.
Though Cal Poly won three games in walk-off fashion -- versus Wichita State (triple by Marinconz in 13th inning), Nebraska (single by Meyer) and CSUN (another single by Meyer) -- the Mustangs struggled overcoming deficits in the late innings, going 2-22 when trailing after six innings, 0-25 after seven frames and 0-26 after eight innings. Cal Poly lost only once when holding the lead in the final three innings, falling 6-5 to Loyola Marymount in 10 innings.
Despite the early-season difficulties, Cal Poly made every weekend relevant by claiming seven of its eight Big West conference series, knocked out of the title chase in the second-to-last weekend when Long Beach State swept Hawai'i.
"What hurt us was that this was a year in which we needed the rest of the Big West teams to be more competitive with the upper-level teams," said Lee. "Case in point this year was that Long Beach State lost just four conference games. We and Cal State Fullerton were trying to stay within striking distance of Long Beach State, but we needed help from others."
The bottom six teams in the Big West standings all had 12 to 16 losses in conference play. The Dirtbags won all eight of their conference series, including sweeps against UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and Hawai'i, and their 20-4 mark was the best in Big West play since Cal State Fullerton was 23-4 in 2013.
Since the start of Big West play on the final day of March, the Mustangs hit .291, outscored the opposition 172-123, compiled a 3.22 ERA and 20-12 record and owned a .976 fielding percentage with 29 errors in the 32 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.
In Big West games only, Cal Poly finished No. 1 with a .300 average and also topped the league in hits and was No. 2 in ERA (3.42), strikeouts by the pitchers, wins and saves and No. 4 in fielding (.974).
The Mustangs earned their first series sweep at UC Santa Barbara since 2007 and swept the Gauchos for the second straight year. Other highlights include Elijah Skipps' pair of three-run home runs in the finale of the UCSB series, back-to-back shutouts against UC Riverside, the three aforementioned walk-off wins and McKenna's April barrage of four home runs in an eight-game span.
Cal Poly has had just four losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 11 times this century. The Mustangs have won 152 of their last 206 home games for a winning percentage of 73.8 percent. Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, captured its first Big West championship in 2014 and has four second-place finishes, four thirds and six fourths since becoming a member of the conference in 1997.
Lee (483-364-2) 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 15 clubs at Cal Poly have averaged 32.2 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 played seven games against Pac-12 teams this season, winning one of three in the 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 27 contests in all inside Baggett Stadium. All 56 Mustang games this spring were played in the Golden State.