Cal Poly to Open Practice Friday in Preparation for 2017 Baseball Season

Cal Poly to Open Practice Friday in Preparation for 2017 Baseball Season

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- With as many as six true freshmen and a community college transfer in the starting lineup, Cal Poly posted a 32-25 record a year ago and finished in the upper half of the Big West Conference standings for the 12th time in Larry Lee's 14 years at the helm.

Expect even better things in 2017.

"We are better in all facets of the game compared to last year's team," said Lee, who has guided Cal Poly to 455 wins, a dozen winning campaigns, eight 30-win seasons and three NCAA regional playoff berths. "We have a lot of experience back on the mound and we're better as a team both offensively and defensively.

"In saying that, position player-wise, we're still very young," Lee added. "Barring injury, we should have a good offensive and defensive team in the field. Now it's just a matter of getting a couple more players involved in the mix."

That process officially begins Friday when the Mustangs descend on Baggett Stadium for the first of three weeks of practice leading up to their Feb. 17 season opener at Cal.

Cal Poly likely will field a freshman, a sophomore, a community college transfer and a senior in the infield and a freshman, sophomore and junior in the outfield with a sophomore behind the plate.

The pitching staff, however, has all three weekend starters back and all will be juniors this spring. The bullpen includes six sophomores who combined for 128 innings of work on the mound as freshmen a year ago.

"We have all three weekend starters back who are now juniors and we will have strong competition from a couple other candidates to fill out the weekend rotation as well as the midweek starter position," Lee said.

"With the position players, depth is an issue," Lee added. "That's why we need to develop a few more players during the non-conference portion of our schedule."

Pitching

Right-hander Erich Uelmen, 5-3 with a 3.68 ERA a year ago with two complete-game victories and 70 strikeouts over 93 innings, is expected to be the Friday night starter, with Jarred Zill, also a right-hander who was 4-3 with a 2.79 ERA and 47 strikeouts over 58 innings in 2016, pencilled in as the Saturday starter.

The Sunday slot is being contested by southpaw Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64 ERA, two complete games, team-leading 89 strikeouts in 94 innings) and sophomore right-handers Bobby Ay (1-1, 5.91 ERA) and Spencer Howard (3-1, 2.95 EA, one save, 39 strikeouts over 36 2/3 innings).

Smith, Ay or Howard likely will be the midweek starter.

"Similar to our position players, our pitching staff needs to stay healthy," said Lee. "Howard has one of our better arms and we need to decide if he will contribute more for us out of the bullpen or as a starter." Howard was San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year in 2014.

Topping the list of relievers out of the bullpen are sophomore right-handers Michael Clark, Craig Colen, Austin Dondanville and Cam Schneider (who started seven games a year ago) along with freshman righty Connor Redmond, junior southpaw Trent Shelton (a transfer from Oregon State) and senior right-hander Slater Lee.

"Clark has taken the biggest steps from last year," said Lee. "We're hoping Shelton gives us a quality left-handed arm and we need two or three other pitchers to take the next step in their development."

Catching

Nick Meyer, 2016 Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year with a .301 batting average and 21 RBI, heads a trio of backstops this spring. Meyer, who started 49 games behind the plate a year ago, threw out 22 base runners trying to steal and picked off 10 other runners, best in the conference.

"Nick is coming off a very successful freshman campaign," said Lee. "He can be one of the better defensive catchers on the West Coast and he became a tough out at the lower end of our lineup."

Meyer struck out just 13 times in 204 plate appearances and was No. 67 in the nation in toughest to strike out, fanning once every 12.5 at-bats. He was a second-team All-Big West Conference selection.

Meyer also could play first base when Lee decides to give the sophomore a day off as the catcher.

Behind Meyer on the preseason depth chart are two newcomers to the team — sophomore John Mackay, a transfer from Palomar College, and freshman Myles Emmerson from El Capitan High School in San Diego County.

Infield

Senior Michael Sanderson, who started all 57 games at third base a year ago, and sophomore Kyle Marinconz, who started 27 games at second base and 30 at shortstop as a true freshman in 2016, anchor the 2017 Mustang infield.

Sanderson hit .296 with 12 doubles and 33 RBI en route to second-team All-Big West honors while Marinconz was a .284 hitter with 15 doubles and 25 RBI on his way to All-Big West honorable mention praise.

Marinconz will start at second base when the season opens in mid-February while freshman Bradlee Beesley from San Leandro High School tops the preseason depth chart at shortstop.

Competition for the starting nod at first base is wide open between Cypress College transfer Elijah Skipps, freshman Scott Ogrin from Valencia High School in Valencia and Meyer. Skipps also could start in left field while Ogrin is a potential starter in right field.

Among the backups in the infield are senior Brett Binning at second base or shortstop, senior Alec Smith at second base and freshman Jack Kuzma from Minnetonka, Minn., at third base.

"With the addition of Beesley at shortstop, it allows us to play Marinconz at his natural position," said Lee. "He's gotten much stronger and gives us a solid bat in the middle of our lineup.

"Beesley is a very explosive hard-nosed player and will develop defensively," Lee added. "He has the ability to be our leadoff hitter as a freshman.

"Sanderson is a better version of himself over last year. He's stronger and better in all areas. He probably will be the only senior in our starting lineup on opening day," Lee noted.

"We have some flexibility at first base. We're trying to develop some players whose primary position is not first base. We'll have some offense from that position, but we need to shore up the defensive component. When Meyer plays first base, it will allow us to move Skipps and Ogrin to the outfield."

Outfield

Cal Poly's outfield likely will feature a freshman, a sophomore and a junior in the starting lineup on opening day with sophomore Alex McKenna moving from right field to center field and junior Josh George returning in left field.

McKenna hit .261 with 27 RBI and a team-leading six home runs in 2016 while George was a .306 hitter with seven doubles and 16 RBI.

Manning right field will be Ogrin, a career .405 hitter at Valencia High.

The lineup will change if Meyer starts at first base, giving Lee more options in the outfield with Skipps in the mix.

The preseason depth chart lists senior Kevin Morgan (.269 in 45 games a year ago), Hancock College transfer Colby Barrick and freshman Gabe Barthelmass from Laguna Hills High School as outfield reserves.

Barrick, the Los Padres League's most valuable player in 2014 out of Santa Ynez High School, hit .388 with 24 RBI as a sophomore at Hancock while Barthelmass produced a .301 career batting average with 24 doubles, five triples, 11 home runs and 48 RBI in four varsity seasons at Laguna Hills.

"Both George and McKenna had late-season injuries a year ago and are fully recovered," said Lee. "Both will add an offensive component to the upper third of our lineup.

"Ogrin and Skipps will see time in the outfield as well, with Ogrin being the better defender," Lee added, "and Skipps' bat will be in the lineup somewhere. we're not sure where he is at this time from a defensive standpoint."

Schedule

Cal Poly opens the 2017 season with four games against Pac-12 foes Cal and Stanford and 10 of its first 11 games on the road. The Mustangs also play a three-game series at UCLA and, in addition, the schedule includes 14 games against 2016 NCAA Regional participants, a 12-game home stand in March and 28 home games in all.

All 56 games will be played in the state of California.

"Our first three weekend series will be on the road and it will be a good challenge for us right out of the gate," said Lee. "We open with a Pac-12 team two years removed from the regionals and Stanford in a midweek game at home. We filled our bye week with UCLA and we have some quality midweek games."

After the stretch of 10 of 11 games on the road, the Mustangs will play at home for three consecutive weeks against Loyola Marymount, Wichita State and Nebraska.

"Our non-conference schedule hopefully will prepare us for the Big West Conference, which is as strong as ever in the upper half with Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine all on paper better than they were a year ago," Lee said.

Cal Poly will host Cal State Fullerton, Hawai'i, CSUN and UC Riverside for Big West series in April and May while hitting the road for three-game conference sets at UC Irvine, UC Davis, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.

"Long Beach State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara all on the road will be big tests for us," said Lee.

Mustang Notes
Despite having 24 newcomers on a 34-man roster a year ago, Cal Poly jumped to a 25-13 start and was tied for first place with Cal State Fullerton in the Big West Conference standings with 7-2 marks in early April … a sweep of then-No. 11 and College World Series qualifier UC Santa Barbara inside Baggett Stadium capped the run before the Mustangs lost McKenna (leg) and George (shoulder) to injury for three weeks and fell back in the standings … with McKenna and George back in the lineup, Cal Poly earned six wins in its final 10 games, including series wins over UC Irvine and UC Davis, to close out the 2016 campaign with a respectable 32-25 overall mark and a fourth-place finish in the Big West, tied with UC Riverside and Hawai'i, all with 12-12 conference records … Lee's previous 14 Mustang clubs have averaged 32.5 wins per year and have finished in the upper half of the Big West standings 12 times … in 2016 Cal Poly had as many as six true freshmen and a community college transfer in the starting lineup at one time or another … a total of 10 position players and eight freshmen were wearing a Mustang uniform for the first time and Cal Poly's lineup in the season-opening Pacific series included 11 freshmen (nine true freshmen and a pair of redshirts) along with three community college transfers … the 2016 club finished No. 2 in the Big West in hitting (.271) and No. 5 in pitching (4.09 ERA) … at one time Cal Poly was ranked nationally at No. 19 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper … the Mustangs won 23 of 31 home games and claimed nine of 15 series, including sweeps against Pacific, San Francisco and UC Santa Barbara … the Mustangs were 5-4 against nationally ranked teams … Cal Poly has produced 14 winning seasons since 2000 and reached the 30-win mark for the 11th time since 2000 … the Mustangs have won 136 of their last 179 home games for a winning percentage of 76 percent … Lee enters his 16th Cal Poly season with a 455-336-2 record, earning his 400th win March 7, 2015, at Pacific … he surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011.