By Sawyer Milam
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — After playing in just one game during his junior season and being forced to redshirt with a shoulder injury, pitcher Bobby Ay is back in the starting rotation trying to provide a steady presence on the mound for Cal Poly.
He did not play any summer ball while rehabbing from his injury in order to come back at full strength.
Even though he wasn't able to contribute on the field for the Mustangs, he was able to learn and grow as a player while on the sidelines which also gave other players on the team the chance to step up.
"It was honestly a blessing in disguise. I had a lot of time to work on my mental game and learn from a lot of kids where I wouldn't have learned from before," said Ay. "Taylor Dollard as a freshman really made an impact on the program and it was really cool to watch him and I got to talk to the coaches a lot and just pick their brains, so taking that year off was big for me to just learn and grow mentally as a baseball player."
So far this season Ay has a record of 2-0 in seven starts while posting a 2.97 ERA and recording 24 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings pitched.
"Not being able to play I just felt like every time I wished I could do something to help the team, but all that time I was out I was just watching, listening and learning and it's now paying its dividends on the field today," Ay said.
While recovering from his injury, Ay found other ways to help the team and grow as a leader for the team to look up to.
"I just had to keep the energy up in the dugout as much as I could, even if we were down by a couple or up by a couple runs ... I just tried to get my guys excited and ready to go," Ay said.
Ay may have gotten off to a slow start in the beginning of the season by not recording a win in his first five starts, but during the Mustangs' four-game sweep of Columbia, he turned in his best pitching performance of the year.
In that game against Columbia, Ay tossed seven strong innings, allowing just one run and five hits with two walks and five strikeouts in a no-decision.
"It's just a building block for where I want to go. Each time I go out there, it's a learning experience and I get to take some positives and negatives from each outing and put it toward my next one," said Ay. "It's tough to do against big opponents, but as the season goes on you get used to those situations and it gets easier and easier."
Ay followed the performance against Columbia by recorded his first win of the season against Baylor. Coming off a 37-21 campaign, including a 12-12 mark for fourth place in the Big 12 Conference and an appearance in the NCAA's Stanford Regional, the Bears once again got off to a strong start to the season. The Mustangs, however, were able to defeat Baylor 3-1 behind the pitching from Ay in that game.
Ay allowed just one earned run and six hits over 7 1/3 innings versus Saint Mary's for his second win, striking out six, and lowered his ERA to 2.97 by giving up just one run in four innings against CSUN last weekend.
"I would do anything for this team. All these guys are like my brothers out there and, just to sit on the sidelines and not be able to play, it was tough for me. Having that gut feeling that I can't do anything was one of the biggest driving factors for me to get back on the field as healthy as possible," Ay said.
The beginning of the season was tough for Ay returning from his injury. The biggest challenge was getting comfortable again on the mound and finding the mental toughness to get out of big situations.
"It was weird the first time out there. It felt like it had been 10 years since I've pitched but, getting that out of the way, it feels like getting back on the bike. It's tough at first, but it's starting to feel good again," Ay said.
Now with seven starts under his belt, Ay's confidence in his abilities is starting to grow and, in his past three starts, has allowed just three combined runs on 15 total hits.
"My goal is to just be more consistent. Sometimes it's really good and sometimes it's the complete opposite. I'm just looking to have that true middle ground so Coach Lee has that trust in me going out there that, everytime I pitch, it's going to be a competitive game no matter what happens," Ay said.
During his time on the sidelines, Ay was able to learn a lot from the coaches and he gives a lot of credit to Larry Lee for teaching him to be mentally strong and how to focus on the mound.
"It's just who can be tougher. Coach Lee always talks about being punks out there on the mound... you want to get that guy out just as badly as he wants to get a hit off you," said Ay. "You just have to bear down and think, 'I'm better than this guy, my stuff is better than this guy' and just having that confidence before you throw that pitch and knowing that, no matter what happens after you throw that pitch, you give it 100 percent."
With Big West Conference play opening last weekend, the Mustangs currently have a record of 12-14, but have won 10 of their last 15 games despite facing a very challenging schedule.
"We love facing good competition because it shows us where our deficiencies are. Knowing that makes us a better team because we are able to work on those and improve on those as a team," Ay said.
One week into Big West play, Ay knows the players have what it takes to compete for the title that's eluded them since 2014.
"Since the day I stepped onto this campus, it has been my goal to win a Big West title. We've gotten really close the last two years and I know this team has what it takes to do it," Ay said.
Ay says this team is one of the closest he's ever played on, and playing for Cal Poly in front of the electric crowd in Baggett Stadium has been an experience he will never forget.
"I wouldn't give anything to leave this team. It's really an incredible thing I've been a part of, it's one of the best places to play in college baseball and I'm lucky to have played here," Ay said.
Sawyer Milam is a senior journalism major from Sacramento, Calif.