SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (11-12 overall, 0-0 Big West), which earned its first series sweep of the 2018 season last weekend by outscoring Dartmouth 26-5 in three games, opens Big West Conference play this week with a three-game series against CSUN (10-14, 0-0 Big West) at Matador Field (cap.: 1,000).
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Matadors square off at 3 p.m. both Thursday and Friday and 1 o'clock Saturday. All three games will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Chris Sylvester providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and audio and video 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., six 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 Tony Gwynn Legacy 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 in early March, Cal Poly split four games with Pacific, then went back out on the road and, after winning the series opener at Nebraska 14-8, scoring 10 runs in the final three innings to wipe out an 8-4 deficit, dropped three straight. The streak was snapped March 12 against New Mexico even though the Mustangs hit into four double plays and surrendered a 4-2 lead in the final two innings of regulation. Sophomore right fielder Bradlee Beesley produced his third career four-hit game and junior catcher Nick Meyer scored on a wild pitch in the 10th inning for the 5-4 walk-off win.
Cal Poly lost two of three games to No. 25 San Diego State two weeks ago, taking the middle game 5-4 on a walk-off wild pitch as the Aztecs were trying to intentionally walk Colby Barrick. Meyer, who scored the winning run again, earned his second career four-hit game. Last weekend, the Mustangs swept Dartmouth by scores of 10-3, 11-2 and 5-0 as Beesley went 6-for-11 with his fourth career four-hit game in the opener and the pitching staff compiled a 1.33 ERA.
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.
"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."
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.
Other candidates for the weekend rotation 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; Triantos (pictured above), who has made three starts so far 15 months after his surgery; 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 3-2 record and 2.40 ERA after his strong performances against Michigan, Pacific and Dartmouth.
"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, he will really help bolster our staff."
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. 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.
"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."
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 No. 2 spot in the order. He is a mainstay in right field this spring and, after a .139 start in the first nine games, has elevated his batting average 154 points to .293, going 22-for-56 (.393) over the last three weeks.
Meyer leads all Cal Poly hitters with a .317 mark, including four doubles, a pair of triples and 10 RBI. The junior catcher has struck out just once every 13.7 at-bats, No. 4 in the Big West and No. 45 in the nation. McKenna is next with a .309 mark, eight doubles and 12 RBI, while freshman first baseman Tate Samuelson is hitting .308 with six doubles and a team-leading 17 RBI. After a slow start, Marinconz is hitting .299, elevating his average 59 points over the last four weeks by going 20-for-62 (.323).
Hitting .246, next to last in the Big West, nine games into the season, Cal Poly has hiked its team average to .290 by hitting .317 since and including a doubleheader sweep against Pacific on March 3.
After losing three of four games to BYU to open the season, CSUN won seven of its next eight games against Manhattan, Valparaiso, CSU Bakersfield and Grand Canyon. The Matadors were 8-4 three weeks into the campaign before losing three straight and 10 of its next 11. A seven-game losing streak was snapped Tuesday with a 13-7 victory over CSU Bakersfield.
Top Matador hitters to date are catcher Trevor Casanova with a .372 mark, nine doubles, four home runs and 20 RBI, first baseman Nolan Bumstead (.353, three homers, 16 RBI) and center fielder Justin Toerner (.324, four home runs, 13 RBI). Left fielder Albee Weiss leads the Big West in home runs (12) and RBI (36) with a .293 average. The pitching staff is paced by junior right-hander Walker Armstrong (1-1, 3.11 ERA), a transfer from Hancock College who struck out nine over eight innings in a 3-2 loss to Missouri State last weekend. Other starters are junior righty Matt Acosta (3-4, 5.72 ERA), senior right-hander Tei Vanderford (1-2, 7.99 ERA) and freshman southpaw Wesley Moore (2-4, 4.97 ERA).
Coached by Greg Moore (fifth season, 120-127, San Francisco '99), CSUN has a .294 team batting aver-age through 24 games, No. 1 in the Big West. The Matadors have stolen 13 of 19 bases, sport a 5.61 staff ERA and have compiled a .970 fielding percentage with 27 errors in 24 games.
CSUN claimed its lone Big West title in 2002, and captured the Western Athletic Conference crown in 1996, both under Mike Batesole, now head coach at Fresno State. CSUN captured NCAA Division II national titles in 1970 and 1984 under Bob Hiegert.
Moore was associate head coach for three seasons at San Francisco, where he oversaw pitching, admissions, community service and summer placement. Moore began his collegiate coaching career at USF in 2002 as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Dons. He served in that capacity until 2009, when he took a position as the pitching coach at Washington for one season before heading back to his alma mater.
Moore played collegiate baseball for San Francisco and was named to the West Coast Conference All-Academic Team in 2001. As a player, he won the team's "Most Inspirational" award in back-to-back seasons and the award now bears his name. Moore earned his bachelor's degree in education and completed his master's in sports and fitness management at San Francisco in 2001.
Former Matadors who played in the Major Leagues include Jason Thompson, Adam Kennedy, Robert Fick, Lyman Bostock and Kameron Loe.
Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge have met 226 times on the baseball field since the series began when both teams were California Collegiate Athletic Association members back in 1959. The Matadors hold a 122-104 advantage after Cal Poly won two of three games at Baggett Stadium a year ago. Meyer's walk-off single produced a 6-5 win in the opener, Spencer Howard pitched a complete-game seven-hitter in a 5-2 triumph to clinch the series and the Matadors won the finale 12-3. CSUN swept the Mustangs two years ago at Matador Field. In 2014, Cal Poly swept the Matadors at Matador Field to clinch the Big West title. Cal Poly is 39-31 against CSUN since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season. Larry Lee is 32-18 against CSUN while Greg Moore is 5-7 against Cal Poly.
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 155 of their last 213 home games for a winning percentage of 72.8 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 opened the campaign with four games in Surprise, Ariz., visited Nebraska for a four-game series last 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 (494-376-2) 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 hosts CSU Bakersfield on Tuesday night before playing another conference series on the road, visiting Cal State Fullerton on Friday through Sunday.