SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (5-7, 0-0 Big West), which opened its 30-game home schedule by splitting four games against Pacific over the weekend, plays another four-game series this week at 2017 Big Ten regular season champion and NCAA Regional qualifier Nebraska (6-5, 0-0 Big Ten) inside Hawks Field at Haymarket Park (cap.: 8,486), also home to the Lincoln Saltdogs of the independent American Association's Central Division.
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Huskers of former Major Leaguer Darin Erstad square off at 11:35 a.m. both Thursday and Friday followed by a 10:05 a.m. doubleheader Saturday. All four games will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Eric Burdick providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and audio and video (subscription) streams are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
After losing three of four games in the College Baseball Classic hosted by the city of Surprise, Ariz., three weeks ago, defeating Gonzaga 8-7 in 10 innings on Scott Ogrin's home run, Cal Poly earned victories over No. 4-ranked Arkansas and Michigan in the seven-team tournament co-hosted by San Diego State and the University of San Diego on the last weekend of February.
Alex McKenna's ninth-inning single to right-center field snapped a 3-3 tie as Cal Poly edged Arkansas 4-3 and sophomore catcher Myles Emmerson knocked in four runs with three singles and a triple while freshman right-hander Darren Nelson pitched seven scoreless innings of one-hit baseball in the Mustangs' 8-1 triumph over Michigan.
Opening the home schedule, Cal Poly was shut out by Pacific 4-0 on Friday, swept a Saturday doubleheader by scores of 9-0 and 9-1 thanks to 30 hits, and dropped the finale 8-3, letting a 1-0 sixth-inning lead slip away as Pacific scored all of its eight runs in that frame, including a grand slam by Ryan Schalch.
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, 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, in 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 welcomed 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 were 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 the Alumni Game and sports a 2-0 record and 0.55 ERA after his strong performances against Michigan and Pacific.
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 also will include a pair of freshmen. Tate Samuelson, a career .351 hitter at Serra High School in San Diego, has started seven games 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., has shared duties at third base with Cole Cabrera, another freshman, and junior Dylan Doherty. Samuelson has at least one hit in 10 of Cal Poly's 12 games this season and leads the squad with his 10 RBI.
Marinconz, who homered twice in Arizona, 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, 3-11 and 8-16 starts. He hit .217 overall, but elevated his average with a .278 mark in Big West games and going 10-for-32 (.313) over the last three weeks of the season.
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 , and hit .305 with 13 doubles, three triples and 14 RBI, mostly from the second spot in the order. Barrick started 24 games in right field and hit .303 with 14 RBI as well.
Meyer is Cal Poly's top hitter through 12 games with a .350 average, including two doubles and a triple for six RBI and just two strikeouts in 51 plate appearances. McKenna is hitting .333 with four doubles, a triple and a home run while Samuelson sports a .333 average with five doubles and a homer.
Nebraska is off to a 6-5 start, winning five of eight games in Surprise, Ariz., against UC Riverside, Washington State, Oregon State and Utah before dropping two of three at Wichita State, bouncing back from 9-1 and 6-3 losses by overcoming a 7-2 deficit for a 10-inning 10-9 triumph Sunday.
Eleven games into the season under Erstad, Nebraska is hitting .229 as a team with a 5.25 staff ERA and a .971 fielding percentage with a dozen errors. Junior catcher Jesse Wilkening leads all Husker batters with a .342 average with two doubles, a pair of home runs and 13 RBI. No other Husker regular is hitting over .300 though outfielder Zac Repinski has a .300 average in five starts.
Nebraska won three of four games over Cal Poly in Baggett Stadium a year ago and has a 9-1 advantage in the series. Lone Mustang win was a 3-2 walk-off decision in the second game of last year's series as Nick Meyer singled through the left side of the Husker infield in the bottom of the ninth inning, scoring Brett Binning from second base. Lee is 1-5 against Nebraska while Erstad is 3-1 versus Cal Poly.
Coached by Erstad (seventh season, 217-146-1, Nebraska), the Huskers have qualified for three College World Series (2001, 2002, 2005) and 15 regionals, including the last two seasons and three of the last four. Nebraska has claimed seven regular-season conference titles and four conference tournament championships (mostly as a member of the Big 12).
Erstad was named the 23rd head coach of the Nebraska baseball program on June 2, 2011. Over his first six seasons, the Huskers have made three trips to the NCAA Tournament and have qualified for the Big Ten Tournament each year. A two-time Major League All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, Erstad enjoyed a 14-year career in Major League Baseball with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (1996-06), Chicago White Sox (2007) and Houston Astros (2008-09).
During his career, he helped the Angels to a World Series title in 2002 and two other playoff appearances. Erstad appeared in 1,654 games, while finishing his career as a .282 hitter with 1,697 hits, 124 homers and 699 RBIs. He was at his best in the postseason, hitting .339 in 29 career playoff games, including a .352 clip during the Angels World Series run in 2002. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft was a two-sport star at Nebraska, earning first-team All-American and Big Eight Co-Player of the Year honors as a junior in 1995 in baseball and he was the starting punter for the Huskers' 1994 national championship football team that finished 13-0. A native of Jamestown, N.D., Erstad earned first-team all-state accolades in four sports (football, hockey, track and baseball) in high school..
Cal Poly will play 16 games against 2017 NCAA Regional participants this spring, has a pair of home stands 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 154 of their last 210 home games for a winning percentage of 73.3 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 opened the campaign with four games in Surprise, Ariz., visits Nebraska for a four-game series this week 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 (488-371-2) 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.
Next week, Cal Poly opens a seven-game home stand with a Monday night contest against New Mexico followed by a three-game series versus San Diego State on Friday through Sunday.