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Cal Poly Overcomes Adversity for Third Straight Second-Place Finish

Cal Poly Overcomes Adversity for Third Straight Second-Place Finish
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — For Cal Poly to play a meaningful baseball game on the final day of the 2019 regular season seems to be quite an accomplishment. Consider the following:
• Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs produced the lowest batting average (.260), lowest on-base percentage (.341), lowest slugging percentage (.332), fewest runs scored (247), fewest RBIs (217), fewest doubles (76), fewest home runs (13) and fewest steals (22) in 25 Division I seasons. The Mustangs were seventh in the Big West in hitting and eighth in fielding with 80 errors in 56 games.
• Cal Poly fell to 2-9 in the first four weeks of the season before turning things around with a four-game sweep of Columbia.
• The Mustangs were 11-21 against non-conference opponents, just 16-14 at home, shut out five times, won just five of 15 series finales and yet never had a losing streak of more than three games.
• Finally, the majority of Cal Poly's starters missed playing time due to injury, including Friday night starter Jarred Zill (missed seven starts), middle infielder Dylan Doherty (sidelined final 25 games due to a hamstring pull) and utility player Scott Ogrin (missed entire season with an infected toe).
Still, the Mustangs battled back to even their overall mark at 28-28. At one time, Cal Poly was three games above the .500 mark at 20-17, winning 18 of 26 games, before falling back. Last weekend, Cal Poly won its first two games at No. 4-ranked UC Santa Barbara before dropping the season finale with a share of the Big West title and an NCAA regional berth on the line. The Mustangs finished in the upper half of the conference standings for the 15th time in Lee's 17 seasons at the helm with their third consecutive second-place finish.
"Our hitting was a big concern going into the season and it unfolded just like I anticipated," said Lee. "We didn't have the ability to get on base, manufacture runs and steal bases, all of those things important for a good offense. We were deficient in those areas and it showed itself very strongly as the season unfolded.
"Same on the defensive side," Lee added. "We tried to shore things up but, like the offense, we had very few options. For the most part, we were forced to play the same players game in and game out because of a lack of depth."
For the third straight year and fourth in the last five seasons, Cal Poly was tormented by a slow start. The Mustangs, 2-9 after being swept for the third straight weekend, won 26 of their last 45 games to finish at the break-even mark this spring. Cal Poly was 6-10 before wrapping up the 2018 campaign 30-27 (winning its final seven contests) and 3-11 before finishing 28-28 (won seven of last nine games) in 2017. The Mustangs also opened the 2015 season 7-14 but rallied to finish 27-27 (winning 17 of their last 26 games).
"It's a combination of a few things, one of them being a difficult schedule and playing many of the better programs in the country on the road," said Lee. "We just weren't good enough to compete with those teams, whether it was the beginning or the end of the season."
Things won't be any easier for the Mustangs in 2020 as they are scheduled to host Michigan, Baylor, Oklahoma and BYU while visiting San Diego State and Oregon for non-conference series. Cal Poly also will face Vanderbilt, Michigan and Connecticut in a season-opening tournament in Arizona and will host Stanford for a midweek game. The Mustangs host UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State and UC Davis for Big West series next year.
Cal Poly won the Big West title in 2014 and has placed second six times, third four times and fourth six times since 2000, posting a combined record of 310-258 in 23 years as a member of the Big West. UC San Diego and CSU Bakersfield join the Big West for the 2021 season, increasing the number of teams in the conference to 11 and raising discussion of a return to a postseason tournament.
"I have always been a proponent of a conference tournament," said Lee. "It allows someone consistently near the top one more chance to get into a regional. Today, the Big West is a one-bid league. It's difficult to get a second team into the postseason. UC Irvine won 13 series and earned 37 wins but didn't get in. If they don't get in with their resumé, then the Big West is turning into a one-bid league."
Cal Poly lost three seniors — Zill, Doherty and relief pitcher Michael Clark — and could lose more players to next week's Major League Draft, most notably fourth-year junior Bobby Ay, junior center fielder Bradlee Beesley, junior catcher Myles Emmerson and some high school prospects.
"The fate of this program's near future heavily depends on the MLB Draft," Lee said. "If we lose certain players, it's going to be very difficult to fix our problems anytime soon."
Heading the list of returnees will be designated hitter Conagher Sands, first baseman Tate Samuelson, right fielder Elijah Greene, shortstop Connor Gurnik, third baseman Nick DiCarlo, left fielder Cole Cabrera and pitchers Taylor Dollard, Ryan Jameson, Darren Nelson, Andrew Alvarez, Chase Watkins, Thomas Triantos and Dylan Villalobos, among others.
Sands produced a 23-game hitting streak and a team-leading .328 average with 26 RBIs while Samuelson led the team for the second straight season in home runs (5) and RBIs (39). Dollard earned four saves, a 5-0 mark and 2.89 ERA while Nelson was 2-5 with a 4.99 ERA. Jameson lowered his ERA from 18.00 to 4.43 by allowing just two earned runs over his last eight appearances of the season, posting a 1.10 ERA over 16 1/3 innings.
Ay was 9-1 with a 3.27 ERA as Cal Poly's middle starter in weekend series while Clark posted a 6-3 record, 2.61 ERA and eight saves, finishing his Mustang career with 19 saves and 86 appearances on the mound, both No. 2 all-time at Cal Poly. Ay, Clark and Dollard landed on the All-Big West first team while Sands, Samuelson, Emmerson and Beesley earned honorable mention praise.
Right fielder Elijah Greene, the lone Mustang to start and play all 56 games led Cal Poly in multiple-hit games with 19 en route to a .274 average and Beesley produced a trio of four-hit games, giving him seven in his Mustang career. Samuelson's 13 multiple-RBI contests led the squad.
Emmerson, who hit .256 overall, led all Cal Poly hitters in Big West games with a .337 average, rebounding from a.073 start by going 41-for-131 (.313) at the plate since and including the Baylor series in mid-March. He picked off three baserunners and threw out 13 would-be base stealers. 
Gurnik finished with a .263 mark, DiCarlo .255 and Cabrera .229. Greene and Cabrera both notched five outfield assists and Cabrera, who had one of Cal Poly's two walk-off at-bats, an RBI single to beat Columbia 3-2 on March 8, also robbed two UC Santa Barbara batters of home runs in the opening game of the season-ending series May 23. DiCarlo's 12th-inning groundout versus Columbia on March 9 accounted for the other Mustang walk-off win, 2-1.
Cal Poly's weekend rotation in the first eight weeks of the 2019 season consisted of Zill, Ay and Nelson. Zill missed his last seven starts due to injury but made five relief appearances down the stretch, giving up two earned runs over 5 2/3 innings. Freshman southpaw Chase Watkins (0-3, 5.20 ERA) stepped in with seven weekend starts and a pair of midweek starts. Right-hander Bryan Woo (1-2, 9.13 ERA), also a freshman, pitched five innings for the win against Columbia on March 9, was Cal Poly's fourth starter in a pair of four-game series and also started two midweek games. Sophomore southpaw Andrew Alvarez (1-3, 5.10 ERA) replaced Nelson in the weekend rotation in late April.
Cal Poly won seven of its 15 weekend series in addition to a 2-2 split with Saint Mary's. Along with their sweep of Columbia, the Mustangs swept CSUN, UC Davis and Long Beach State en route to a 12-2 start in Big West play, finishing 17-7 and two games behind UC Santa Barbara. A win on the final day of the season would have resulted in a tie for first place between the Mustangs and Gauchos and Cal Poly would have attained the conference's automatic qualifying berth in the NCAA regionals. The Mustangs won six of their eight Big West series.
Cal Poly played 17 games against 2018 NCAA Regional participants this spring and had 10 contests scheduled against Pac-12 schools, going 1-9 in three-game series against Cal and USC at home and versus College World Series participant Washington and a single game against Stanford on the road. The Mustangs' first three series on the road this season — at Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor — were against teams that earned regional berths a year ago along with Cal State Fullerton, Saint Mary's and Stanford.
Cal Poly has had just three losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 12 times this century. The Mustangs have won 184 of their last 259 home games for a 71.0 winning percentage.
Lee (541-419-2) reached the 500-victory milestone on April 20, 2018, with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. His 541 wins to date are No. 2 in the conference behind Fresno State's Bob Bennett (547) and, during the UC Davis series, Lee surpassed Cal Poly alum and former Long Beach State head coach Dave Snow with his 219th conference win. Snow guided the Dirtbags to 218 Big West wins from 1989-2001.
Lee, who earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13, 2017 against Gonzaga, garnered his 1,000th career victory with the 3-0 triumph at UC Santa Barbara on May 23.