SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — For the fourth time in as many weeks, the Cal Poly baseball team clinched a Big West Conference series on the final day.
Center fielder Alex McKenna manufactured his second career four-hit game, Spencer Howard picked up his third win and Michael Clark earned his sixth save as the Mustangs clinched their Big West series against No. 8 Cal State Fullerton with an 8-4 victory Sunday afternoon.
With the win before 2,134 inside Baggett Stadium, Cal Poly improved to 18-20, climbing to within two games of the .500 mark for the first time since the second week of the season. The Mustangs have won 10 of their last 14 games and climbed into second place in the Big West at 8-4. Long Beach State leads with a 10-2 mark.
Cal State Fullerton falls to 24-14 and 6-3 for third place.
Cal Poly has posted a 12-9 mark against the perennial Big West power Titans over the last seven seasons. Cal State Fullerton has made 25 consecutive appearances in an NCAA regional, owns four national titles in 1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004, has claimed 29 conference titles in 42 Division I seasons and has appeared in 38 NCAA regionals, 12 Super Regionals and 17 College World Series.
Cal Poly let a 4-1 lead slip away in a 7-4 loss Friday night but bounced back with 13-6 and 8-4 triumphs to win the series.
"That just shows some resilience on the part of this club after the way we lost Friday night," said Mustang head coach Larry Lee. "The players put that game behind them and got two quality wins.
"Winning the series keeps things relevant for us next weekend and keeps us with the other teams in the upper third of the conference," Lee added. "We need to take care of what we have control of and try to win as many Big West games as possible."
Howard (3-1) (pictured below), whose start was delayed one day due to illness, allowed four runs and six hits over 5 1/3 innings with two walks and seven strikeouts, the fifth time in his Mustang career he has struck out at least seven batters.
Trent Shelton secured four outs and Clark (pictured at right) tossed the final 2 1/3 innings in scoreless fashion, allowing one hit and one walk with one strikeout, lowering his ERA to 1.85.
The two teams traded solo home runs in the first inning. Third baseman Timmy Richards homered with two outs in the top of the first for Cal State Fullerton and Alex McKenna answered with his fourth home run of the year leading off the bottom of the first for Cal Poly.
The Mustangs erupted for five runs in the second inning and never looked back. Sending nine batters to the plate, Cal Poly's biggest hit in the rally was a two-run double by designated hitter Kevin Morgan down the right-field line. McKenna added a run-scoring double to right field, Bradlee Beesley grounded out for an RBI and McKenna scored on a wild pitch.
Cal State Fullerton chipped away at the 6-1 deficit, scoring a run in the third on Richards' RBI single and two more in the fourth on solo home runs by first baseman Dillon Persinger and designated hitter Niko Pacheco.
Cal Poly regained control of the game with single runs in the fifth and eighth frames. Second baseman Scott Ogrin singled to knock home the run in the fifth and an error by the Titans allowed the Mustangs to tally an unearned run in the eighth.
McKenna, who also had a four-hit game a year ago against San Jose State, went 4-for-5 Sunday with two RBI. Hitting .298 after the first 13 games this year, McKenna has hit .402 since (45 of 102) with multiple-hit games in 10 of his last 13 contests and six three-hit games in his last 10 contests.
Catcher Nick Meyer and Ogrin both added two hits Sunday as Cal Poly outhit the Titans 13-8.
Richards led Cal State Fullerton offensively with three hits and two RBI. Second baseman Sahid Valenzuela added two singles.
The loss went to Titan sophomore right-hander Gavin Velasquez (3-1) as he surrendered six runs and five hits in three innings with three walks and a pair of strikeouts.
Cal Poly's surge since a 2-9 start, all 11 games on the road, has been fueled by the offensive production of McKenna, third baseman Bradlee Beesley, right fielder Colby Barrick and first baseman Michael Sanderson.
Beesley hit .160 in his first nine games as a Mustang but has gone 40-for-111 (.360) since to lift his average to .324. Barrick is 25-for-61 (.410) in his last 20 games to lift his average to .394 while Sanderson, hitting .240 in the first three weeks, has collected 37 hits in 100 at-bats over his last 24 contests (.370) to boost his average to .344.
Even Ogrin has gotten into the act as the true freshman, 0-for-17 in his first eight college games before a three-hit game at San Diego State, is 12-for-41 (.293) in his last 11 contests.
"We definitely have been playing our best baseball since the beginning of conference play," Lee said. "It's too bad it took so long to get to where we are now."
Barrick went 6-for-10 in the series, Beesley 7-for-15 with two doubles and McKenna 7-for-16 with a double, triple, home run and five RBI for Cal Poly, which hit .364 in the series and was 8-for-8 in stolen bases.
The Mustangs, hitting .283 overall, own a .329 average in 12 Big West games and have a respectable .972 fielding percentage to go with a 3.86 staff ERA.
The three-game series drew 6,782 fans, No. 4 on the list of crowds for a series in the 17-year history of Baggett Stadium.
Cal Poly closes a four-game home stand Tuesday night at 6 o'clock by hosting Fresno State. The Bulldogs (19-20) routed Nevada 27-5 Sunday in Reno, but lost the series, two games to one.
Photos courtesy of Jack Duffy and Matt Aguirre