SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (13-14 overall, 1-2 Big West), which opened Big West Conference play last week by losing two of three games at CSUN and briefly returned home to defeat CSU Bakersfield 6-0 Tuesday night, goes back out on the road this weekend for another Big West series against Cal State Fullerton (12-15, 1-2 Big West) at Goodwin Field (cap.: 3,500).
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Titans of seventh-year head coach Rick Vanderhook square off Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 o'clock. All three games 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.
After losing three of four games in the College Baseball Classic hosted by the city of Surprise, Ariz., seven weeks ago, defeating Gonzaga 8-7 in 10 innings on Scott Ogrin's home run, Cal Poly earned victories over No. 4-ranked Arkansas and Michigan in the seven-team Tony Gwynn Legacy on the last weekend of February.
Alex McKenna's ninth-inning single to right-center field snapped a 3-3 tie as Cal Poly edged Arkansas 4-3 and sophomore catcher Myles Emmerson knocked in four runs with three singles and a triple while freshman right-hander Darren Nelson pitched seven scoreless innings of one-hit baseball in the Mustangs' 8-1 triumph over Michigan.
Opening the home schedule in early March, Cal Poly split four games with Pacific, then went back out on the road and, after winning the series opener at Nebraska 14-8, scoring 10 runs in the final three innings to wipe out an 8-4 deficit, dropped three straight. The streak was snapped March 12 against New Mexico even though the Mustangs hit into four double plays and surrendered a 4-2 lead in the final two innings of regulation. Sophomore right fielder Bradlee Beesley produced his third career four-hit game and junior catcher Nick Meyer scored on a wild pitch in the 10th inning for the 5-4 walk-off win.
Cal Poly lost two of three games to No. 25 San Diego State three weeks ago, taking the middle game 5-4 on a walk-off wild pitch as the Aztecs were trying to intentionally walk Colby Barrick. Meyer, who scored the winning run again, earned his second career four-hit game. The Mustangs closed a seven-game home stand by sweeping Dartmouth by scores of 10-3, 11-2 and 5-0 as Beesley went 6-for-11 with his fourth career four-hit game in the opener and the pitching staff compiled a 1.33 ERA.
Cal Poly closed the month of March and opened Big West play at CSUN, dropping 5-3 and 10-7 decisions before posting a 5-4 triumph by scoring twice in the eighth inning. The losing team outhit the winners in all three games and Cal Poly had the lead in all three contests. Five Mustang pitchers combined on a five-hit shutout and 11 strikeouts in Tuesday's win over CSU Bakersfield. Kyle Marinconz and Colby Barrick led the way offensively with two-run singles in a five-run third-inning rally.
After losing 24 players, many of them juniors, to the Major League Baseball Draft over the last five years, including its back-to-back regional teams in 2013 and 2014, Lee feels the 2018 Mustang squad could exhibit the qualities of the two teams that posted back-to-back 40-victory seasons and a Big West Conference title in 2014.
"We are working to get back to where we were in our back-to-back regional seasons a few years ago," said Lee. "There is a strong mixture of experience and youth but a talented mixture of experience and youth. We also feel that we shored up a number of areas that were lacking and getting back to where we were in terms of physicality, competitiveness and the quality of our players.
"We have a lot of options and several quality arms on the mound," added Lee, in his 16th season at the helm of the Cal Poly baseball program after 16 successful campaigns at Cuesta College. "We're a much better defensive team than a year ago and we should be a much better offensive team."
This spring, Lee welcomed back 19 letter winners, including eight position players who made 25 or more starts in 2017, and nine pitchers, six of whom pitched 25 or more innings. In addition, pitchers Jarred Zill and Thomas Triantos, both of whom underwent Tommy John surgery a year ago, are back.
"We are strong up the middle with Nick Meyer behind the plate, Kyle Marinconz and Scott Ogrin in the middle of the infield and Alex McKenna in center field," noted Lee. "All have lots of game experience and each one of them has improved on the defensive side. You want to be strong up the middle and we are. They all understand how to play their positions."
With redshirt sophomore Spencer Howard (second round, Philadelphia Phillies) and junior Erich Uelmen (fourth round, Chicago Cubs), the Friday and Saturday starters a year ago, gone, Lee has turned to a pair of top relievers for new roles as weekend starters. Junior right-hander Michael Clark, who compiled a 5-0 record, 11 saves and a 2.59 ERA a year ago en route to second-team All-Big West honors, and senior southpaw Trent Shelton (1-1, 2.30 ERA in 2017) top the list of weekend starters this spring.
Other candidates for the weekend rotation are Zill, a junior who was a starter during the first three weekends last year before he was sidelined with the elbow injury requiring surgery; Triantos, who has made three starts so far 15 months after his surgery; and freshman Darren Nelson from Granite Bay High School northeast of Sacramento, who allowed one run and struck out seven in the Alumni Game and sports a 3-2 record and 2.40 ERA after his strong performances against Michigan, Pacific and Dartmouth.
"The wild card is Zill," Lee said of the Capistrano Valley High School graduate who made seven Sunday starts and finished with a 4-3 record and 2.79 ERA as a sophomore in 2016 and was 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA as a freshman in 2015 with seven starts and five relief appearances. "It would change the dynamics of our staff if we get him back 100 percent. Jarred is well ahead of the Tommy John surgery schedule. If we can get him into the weekend starting rotation, he will really help bolster our staff."
McKenna, a first-team All-Big West outfielder a year ago after hitting .360 with 11 doubles, five home runs, 13 steals and 31 RBI as a sophomore, anchors the Mustang outfield this spring after a solid summer in the Cape Cod League with Yarmouth-Dennis. McKenna was Cal Poly's leadoff hitter over the final 43 games of the 2017 season and produced a team-leading 30 multiple-hit games, including 11 three-hit contests. He also led the Mustangs with 10 multiple-RBI games.
"McKenna is coming off a very good season for us, and playing in the Cape allowed him to see power arms on a daily basis, which has really helped him develop as a hitter," said Lee. "Hitting from the leadoff spot is where it starts, and Alex has the ability not only to hit for average, but also for power. He is the leader of our outfield group and continues to improve on the defensive side."
A second-team All-Big West honoree as a freshman in 2017, Beesley started in six different positions, including 24 games at third, and hit .305 with 13 doubles, three triples and 14 RBI, mostly from the No. 2 spot in the order. He is a mainstay in right field this spring and, after a .139 start in the first nine games, has elevated his batting average 160 points to .299, going 27-for-71 (.380) over the last four weeks.
McKenna, 6-for-13 in the CSUN series, has regained the lead among Cal Poly hitters with a .315 mark. He also tops the squad in doubles (9) and multiple-hit games (12). Marinconz (pictured at left) is next at .301 with 16 RBI and a team-leading four home runs, elevating his average 61 points over the last five weeks by going 25-for-78 (.321), while Beesley is hitting .299 with 13 RBI and a team-leading four steals in four attempts.
Meyer sports a .293 mark, including four doubles, a pair of triples and 12 RBI. The junior catcher has struck out just once every 11.5 at-bats, No. 4 in the Big West and No. 70 in the nation. Freshman first baseman Tate Samuelson is hitting .295 with six doubles and a team-leading 18 RBI. Outfielder/designated hitter Colby Barrick (pictured above) is hitting .364 in 18 games (14 starts) with 10 RBI.
Hitting .246, next to last in the Big West, nine games into the season, Cal Poly has hiked its team average to .288 by hitting .310 since and including a doubleheader sweep against Pacific on March 3.
Cal State Fullerton lost seven of its first eight games against Stanford, Nevada, Houston and UCLA, then battled back with an 8-4 mark against Tulane, Grand Canyon, Oregon State and Long Beach State. The Titans lost two of three non-conference games against the Dirtbags and opened Big West play by dropping two of three contests at UC Santa Barbara. Lone win against the Gauchos was a 3-0 no-hitter tossed by Colton Eastman on March 29 with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Titans earned 7-6 and 2-1 wins over Arizona State earlier this week.
Top Titan hitters to date are left fielder Chris Prescott (.310, 10 RBI), right fielder Ruben Cardenas (.286, five doubles, 10 RBI) and catcher Daniel Cope (.292, six doubles, three home runs, 12 RBI). Prescott has not played since March 20 due to a broken hand. Eastman tops the pitching staff with a 3-2 record and 2.47 ERA while Tommy Wilson is 3-0 with a 2.76 ERA and Andrew Quezada 0-3 and 4.11 ERA. All are right-handers.
Coached by Rick Vanderhook (seventh season, 247-142, Trinity '03), Cal State Fullerton has a .242 team batting average. The Titans have stolen 15 of 24 bases, sport a 3.44 staff ERA and have compiled a .965 fielding percentage with 36 errors in 27 games.
Cal State Fullerton is coming off a 39-24 campaign, including a 15-9 mark for third place in the Big West Conference. The Titans return 16 lettermen, including five of the eight position starters and eight pitchers.
Cal State Fullerton has won 29 conference titles in 43 Division I seasons, has appeared in 39 regionals, including each of the last 26 years, along with 13 Super Regionals and 18 College World Series, capturing national championships in 1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004. The Titans are 599-200 since late 1992 at Goodwin Field and has never had a losing season in 43 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 110 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 67-43 advantage, though Cal Poly won two of three games at Baggett Stadium each of the last two years, bouncing back from opening-series losses with a pair of victories each time. Cal Poly swept the 2014 series in Baggett Stadium and has enjoyed some recent success with 16 victories in the last 33 meetings over the previous 11 seasons, winning series at home in 2007, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Cal Poly is 21-55 against Cal State Fullerton since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season. Lee is 17-28 against Cal State Fullerton while Vanderhook is 8-10 as a head coach against Cal Poly.
Cal Poly will play 16 games against 2017 NCAA Regional participants this spring, has a pair of home stands of at least seven games, 30 home games in all and will play four contests against Pac-12 schools, including a three-game set against UCLA inside Baggett Stadium in late April.
A year ago, the Mustangs won 20 of their last 32 contests, and captured seven of eight conference series en route to a second-place finish at 16-8. Cal Poly swept just one series last 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.
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 159 of their last 217 home games for a 73.3 winning percentage. 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. Cal Poly has finished in the top four of the Big West standings 13 times in Lee's previous 15 seasons with the Mustangs. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
All 56 Mustang games last spring were played in the Golden State. This season Cal Poly opened the campaign with four games in Surprise, Ariz., visited Nebraska for a four-game series last month and travels to Hawai'i for a three-game Big West series in early May.
Over the last six seasons from 2012-17, Cal Poly has won 210 games, the third-highest total among the 24 California schools with Division I baseball programs. Averaging 35 wins per season during those six campaigns, the victory total is seventh among 46 schools in the NCAA's West Region. In addition, from 2012-14, Cal Poly averaged 41 wins a year with 123 victories, more than any other Division I team in California, and the Mustangs have averaged 32 victories per season under Lee's guidance.
Lee (496-378-2) 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 15 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, 2017 against Gonzaga.
Next week, Cal Poly plays a rematch at CSU Bakersfield on Tuesday, then begins a stretch of playing 18 of 23 games at home, including four of its next five Big West series, beginning April 13-15 with UC Davis.