SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-0, 0-0 Big West), which rallied from a 2-9 start to finish 28-28 overall and second place in the Big West Conference a year ago, hopes to carry that momentum into its 2018 season-opening weekend with four games in the College Baseball Classic hosted by the city of Surprise, Ariz., inside Surprise Stadium (10,500).
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs face Gonzaga (0-0, 0-0 West Coast) on Friday at 4 p.m. PST, followed by games against New Mexico (0-0, 0-0 Mountain West) on Saturday at 4 p.m., No. 2 Oregon State (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12) on Sunday at noon and Gonzaga again on Monday at 9 a.m. All three teams finished first in their conference during the 2017 regular season.
All four games, being played at the spring training complex of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Chris Sylvester and Eric Burdick providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and an audio stream are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
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, Cal Poly head coach Larry 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, entering 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 welcomes 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 and the Mustang coaching staff also has 13 newcomers to add to the mix, including two freshman infielders who likely will be in the starting lineup on Opening Day and as many as six first-year pitchers who are high on the preseason depth chart.
"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.
"At the plate, hopefully the group we put out there will provide a stressful lineup for our opponents as we have a number of starters back from last year," Lee added. "As far as pitching, the big question is our ability to convert some of our successful relievers from last year into starting roles."
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. Clark was named to Collegiate Baseball's 2018 Preseason All-American second team while Shelton gave Mustang fans a glimpse of his potential as a starter when he allowed one earned run and eight hits over 13 innings with 13 strikeouts as Cal Poly's starter in the finale of the last two series of 2017 against UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
That leaves the Sunday and midweek starting slots to fill. Among the candidates 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; junior Bobby Ay, who started 11 games in 2017 but finished 1-6 with a 5.40 ERA; and freshman Darren Nelson from Granite Bay High School northeast of Sacramento, who allowed one run and struck out seven in last Saturday's Alumni Game, won by the 2018 Mustangs 14-2.
All three are right-handers.
"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 at some point, he will really help bolster our staff."
With Ogrin and Marinconz stationed in the middle, the Mustang infield likely also will include a pair of freshmen. Tate Samuelson, a career .351 hitter at Serra High School in San Diego tops the preseason depth chart at first base while Nick DiCarlo, a 372 hitter as a senior, .457 as a junior and .475 as a sophomore at Arcadia High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is the leading candidate at third base.
Marinconz hit .273 and led the team with 13 doubles and 32 RBI on his way to first-team All-Big West accolades a year ago. He opened the 2017 season with 14 starts at second base before moving over to shortstop, solidifying the Mustang infield. Ogrin started nine games in right field, five as the designated hitter and three at first base before settling into his job at second base a year ago with 29 starts, helping the Mustangs rebound from 2-9 and 8-16 starts. He hit .217 overall, but elevated his average with a .278 mark in Big West games.
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. Senior Josh George will be in left field, where he started 46 games a year ago, in his final season as a Mustang while right field, which had six different starters in 2017, is expected to be shared by sophomore Bradlee Beesley and senior Colby Barrick.
"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."
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. George was a .249 hitter a year ago with nine doubles, seven steals and 24 RBI. A second-team All-Big West honoree as a freshman in 2017, Beesley started in six different positions, including 24 games at third base, and hit .305 with 13 doubles, three triples and 14 RBI, mostly from the second spot in the batting order. Barrick started 24 games in right field and hit .303 with 14 RBI as well.
Gonzaga, coached by Mark Machtolf (15th season at Gonzaga, 417-339-2), is coming off a 33-20 campaign, finishing tied for first place in the West Coast Conference at 20-7 but losing twice to Brigham Young in the conference tournament finals. The Bulldogs return 18 letter winners, including four position starters and seven pitchers, led by outfielder Troy Johnston, an All-West Coast Conference Freshman Team selection last year after hitting .323, and junior right-hander Daniel Bies, 5-3 with a 5.20 ERA in 2017. Cal Poly defeated Gonzaga 6-1 last March inside Baggett Stadium. Only other meeting between the two schools was in 2003 at Fresno, which ended in an 8-8 tie called after eight innings due to a time limit.
Coached by Ray Birmingham (11th season at New Mexico, 341-251-2), New Mexico finished 30-27-1 in 2017, placing first in the Mountain West at 19-9-1 but denied an NCAA regional bid after finishing third in the conference tournament. Top returners include outfielders Jared Mang (.373, 17 doubles, nine home runs, 62 RBI in 2017), a first-team All-Mountain West selection, and Danny Collier (.328, 13 doubles, 51 RBI). The two teams have met just once before, Cal Poly earning a 6-4 in 10 innings at Corvallis, Oregon.
Oregon State, ranked No. 2 in all six major NCAA Division I baseball preseason polls, capped a phenomenal 56-6 season with an appearance in the College World Series and claimed the Pac-12 title with a 27-3 mark. Nineteen letter winners return, led by junior infielder Nick Madrigal, a unanimous Preseason All-American who hit .380 with 22 doubles, four home runs, 40 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases. He finished the 2017 season as a unanimous All-American, was named the Pac-12 Conference's Player and Defensive Player of the Year and has been named to the initial watch list for the 2018 Golden Spikes Award. Other top returnees include outfielder Steven Kwan (.331) and senior southpaw Luke Heimlich (11-1, 0.76 ERA, 128 strikeouts over 118 1/3 innings). Coached by Pat Casey (24th season, 845-446-5), Oregon State leads the series 8-3-1 and the last meeting was a three-game series in Corvallis in 2015, Cal Poly winning twice.
Cal Poly will play 16 games against 2017 NCAA Regional participants this spring, has a pair of homestands 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 152 of their last 206 home games for a winning percentage of 73.8 percent. 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 opens the campaign with four games in Surprise, Ariz., visits Nebraska for a four-game series in March 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 (483-364-2) 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 14 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.
Baggett Stadium is undergoing numerous changes in 2018. Permanent bleachers and a new pole-free backstop net will be in place by the home opener against Pacific on March 2 and construction of the new two-story Dignity Health Baseball Clubhouse should begin in March.
Next week, Cal Poly plays Arkansas, Grand Canyon and Michigan in the Tony Gwynn Legacy hosted by San Diego State.