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Tale of Two Seasons II:  Cal Poly Rallies From Slow Start to Finish 30-27

Tale of Two Seasons II:  Cal Poly Rallies From Slow Start to Finish 30-27
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly won its final seven games of the 2018 season and 11 of the last 14, finally surpassing the .500 mark on the final weekend.
Sound familiar?
A year ago, Cal Poly opened 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, and capturing seven of eight Big West series to close out a 28-28 season.
"I don't know what the answer is to getting off to a better start from Game 1," said 16-year Mustang head coach Larry Lee. "Over the years, it was one of our strong points, but there's been a reversal the last couple years. We get ourselves into a hole due to the poor quality of play on our part early on."
Cases in point: The 2016 squad was 11-3 to open the year; the 2014 team was 4-0, 8-1 and 36-5 en route to the Big West title; the 2013 club was 7-0 and 15-2 on its way to a 40-win season; the 2012 squad opened the year 11-4 and the 2009 team was 17-4 and finished 37-21. The 2014, 2013 and 2009 clubs earned regional playoff berths while the others came close.
"Unfortunately, we have to be very good in both non-conference and conference games in order to gain a regional berth," said Lee.
This spring, Cal Poly emerged from a 1-5 start in Big West play to finish second for the second year in a row and fifth in Lee's tenure with the Mustangs, winning 14 of its last 18 conference games with sweeps against defending champion Long Beach State along with UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
The Mustangs, however, were 15-18 in non-conference games, earning a smattering of quality wins against No. 5 national seed Arkansas, then-No. 25 and Mountain West Conference tournament winner San Diego State, West Coast Conference regular-season champion Pepperdine and WCC tournament champion Gonzaga, and two teams from the Big 10 Conference (Nebraska and Michigan).
After winning the opener in extra innings against Gonzaga, Cal Poly slipped as far as five games below the .500 mark, finally reaching and surpassing the break-even mark on the final weekend of the year with the sweep at UC Riverside.
"It was a tale of two seasons again," said Lee. "We got off to an extremely slow start and were able to turn around the season shortly after we began our conference schedule. In saying that, we started Big West play 1-5 before we became very competitive and were able to play our best baseball from that point on.
"There were a lot of issues in all facets of the game, but especially on defense," Lee added. "It took a while to clean up that side of the ball and, probably a third of the way through the season, we started swinging the bats well with more contributions from players throughout the lineup. 
"We were thin on the mound due to having Jarred Zill for only five starts and Bobby Ay for just one," Lee said. "Those two were possible weekend starters and, with them out of the equation, we were chasing the .500 mark overall the entire year and chasing the entire Big West from the bottom."
That chase ended with a second-place Big West finish for the second year in a row, three games behind champion Cal State Fullerton and two games clear of third-place UC Irvine. Cal Poly has finished in the upper half of the conference standings 14 times in Lee's 16 years, including five second-place finishes.
Going 47-for-116 over his final 27 games, catcher Nick Meyer claimed the top spot among Mustang hitters with a .344 average, 14 doubles and 29 RBI with a late-season 17-game hitting streak and closing out the year reaching base in his last 29 contests. Center fielder Alex McKenna posted a .339 mark with 15 doubles, five triples, five home runs, 23 multiple-hit games, 31 RBI and a 12-game hitting streak. 
Both juniors are expected to be drafted in the top five rounds next week. Senior southpaw Trent Shelton, 5-1 in Big West starts and 6-3 overall with a 3.33 ERA, led the pitching staff. Fourth-year junior Austin Dondanville, 2-1 with a 3.05 ERA and four saves, finished the year with a flourish. Over his last six appearances on the mound covering 15 innings, he allowed one unearned run and 14 hits with two walks and 12 strikeouts.
"We will lose some key components from this year's team due to graduation and the draft," Lee said. "We will need some of the returning players to develop within the program and step up to a higher level, especially with the non-conference schedule we will have, which is even more difficult than this year."
Cal Poly will visit Baylor, Washington, Oklahoma and Stanford, all regional teams this year, on the road and will host Cal State Fullerton, USC and Cal in 2019.
The Mustangs return Zill and two of this year's weekend starters — Darren Nelson (5-4, 4.79 ERA) and Michael Clark (4-6, 5.90 ERA) — along with eight other pitchers next spring.
The list of returning position players is led by first baseman Tate Samuelson (.280, five homers, team-leading 38 RBI), right fielder Bradlee Beesley (.277, 12 doubles, 33 RBI) and second baseman Scott Ogrin (.266, 26 RBI). Myles Emmerson (.322) and John Mackay (.281) will battle to replace Meyer behind the plate.
Shortstop Kyle Marinconz could return as well, depending on the outcome of the draft. He lifted his average 70 points over the last 13 weeks of the season, finishing at .305 with 14 doubles, four home runs and 31 RBI.
Season highlights include a pair of walk-off victories, scoring the winning run on wild pitches each time. Meyer scored on a wild pitch in the 10th inning for a 5-4 triumph against New Mexico on March 12 and the Mustangs beat San Diego State 5-4 on a walk-off wild pitch as the Aztecs were trying to intentionally walk Colby Barrick in the ninth inning.
Cal Poly rallied from an 8-0 deficit to beat CSU Bakersfield 11-8 on April 10 and also was 4-1 in extra-inning games, all 10 innings.
The Mustangs were No. 1 in the Big West in team hitting, on-base percentage, hits, doubles, triples, walks and turning double plays. Twenty of Cal Poly's 24 Big West games were decided by four or fewer runs. The Mustangs defeated UC Davis 16-0 and the three remaining games were six-run decisions, Cal Poly winning twice.
Lee reached his milestone 500th win during the Long Beach State series. His 513 wins to date are No. 2 in the conference behind Fresno State's Bob Bennett (547) and Lee's 212 conference wins also are No. 2 in the Big West behind Long Beach State's Dave Snow (218).
With 973 career wins at Cal Poly and Cuesta, Lee will enter the 2019 campaign just 27 victories shy of the 1,000 mark.