SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (19-24 overall, 6-6 Big West), which lost all five games of a stretch of non-conference games, including a 4-3 setback against Santa Clara on Tuesday, resumes Big West Conference play this weekend with a three-game series against second-place Hawai'i (22-17, 8-7 Big West) inside Les Murakami Stadium (cap.: 4,312).
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Rainbow Warriors of 17th-year head coach Mike Trapasso square off at 9:35 p.m. PDT both Friday and Saturday and 4:05 p.m. Sunday. All three games of the series 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.
Cal Poly is tied for fourth place in the Big West with UC Santa Barbara, both 6-6 and three games behind frontrunner Cal State Fullerton (9-3) with 12 games remaining for each team. UC Irvine and Hawai'i share second place at 8-7 The Mustangs host the Anteaters next week and UC Santa Barbara in two weeks.
After losing three of four games in the College Baseball Classic hosted by the city of Surprise, Ariz., to open the season, defeating Gonzaga 8-7 in 10 innings on Scott Ogrin's solo 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.
Cal Poly was 3-4 after the Tony Gwynn Legacy and was within one game of the .500 mark on five other occasions before finally getting over the hump and to the .500 mark at 19-19 with a sweep of Long Beach State on April 20-22. The Mustangs' only series wins so far this season are three-game sweeps against Dartmouth and Long Beach State and two games to one over UC Davis.
The Mustangs have earned a pair of walk-off wins, scoring the winning run on wild pitches each time. Junior catcher Nick Meyer scored on a wild pitch in the 10th inning for a 5-4 triumph against New Mexico on March 12 and beat San Diego State 5-4 on a walk-off wild pitch as the Aztecs were trying to intentionally walk Colby Barrick in the ninth inning.
Last week, Cal Poly fell 10-7 at Santa Clara before dropping three games to UCLA. The Mustangs hit just .234 against the Bruins, junior catcher Nick Meyer going 6-for-12 and sophomore outfielder Bradlee Beesley compiling a 4-for-12 series with three RBI. Santa Clara stretched Cal Poly's season-high losing streak to five games with Tuesday's 4-3 triumph at Baggett Stadium. The Mustangs loaded the bases with one out in both the eighth and ninth innings — Tate Samuelson singling in a pair of runs in the ninth — but fell a run short in their comeback bid from a 4-1 deficit.
Lee welcomed back 19 letter winners this spring, 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, returned this year.
"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."
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, sophomore Bradlee 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 128 points to .267.
Senior outfielder/designated hitter Colby Barrick sits atop all Mustang hitters with a .352 average while Meyer, a junior catcher, is 22-for-57 (.386) over his last 13 games to raise his average to .314.
McKenna, 6-for-13 in the CSUN series, 5-for-12 against Cal State Fullerton, 6-for-15 versus UC Davis and 5-for-10 against Long Beach State, has compiled a .313 mark. He also tops the squad in doubles (10) and multiple-hit games (17). Freshman first baseman Tate Samuelson is hitting .304 with eight doubles, five home runs — two in the Cal State Fullerton series — and a team-leading 32 RBI.
Junior shortstop Kyle Marinconz (pictured at left) sports a .293 mark with seven doubles, four home runs and 22 RBI, elevating his average 54 points over the last nine weeks, including his third career four-hit game at CSU Bakersfield.
Hitting .246, next to last in the Big West, nine games into the season, Cal Poly has hiked its team average to .289, tops in the conference, by hitting .305 since and including a doubleheader sweep March 3 against Pacific.
Hawai'i opened its 2018 season by winning 13 of its first 21 games with series wins over Air Force and Illinois State and 2-2 splits versus BYU, Loyola Marymount and Seton Hall. The Rainbow Warriors also opened Big West play with 2-to-1 series wins over UC Irvine, UC Davis and UC Riverside, but lost two of three to both Cal State Fullerton and CSUN. After winning the opener against the Matadors at home, Hawai'i dropped 12-7 and 2-0 decisions.
Hawai'i's pitching staff has been hit with injuries. Saturday starter Neil Uskali was a late scratch last week, as was Sunday starter Dominic DeMiero, both with arm soreness. Their status for this weekend's series against the Mustangs is uncertain. Friday night starter Jackson Rees, a junior right-hander from Saddleback College, sports a 4-1 record and 2.84 ERA.
Thirty-nine games into the season under Trapasso (17th season, 476-462, Oklahoma State '87), Hawai'i is hitting .271 as a team with just seven steals in 17 attempts, a 4.01 staff ERA and a .971 fielding percentage with 43 errors. Catcher Kekai Rios tops all Hawai'i hitters with a .333 average and 15 RBI while shortstop Maaki Yamazaki is hitting .303 with seven doubles and 13 RBI. Outfielders Adam Fogel (.289, 14 doubles, four home runs, 25 RBI) and Johnny Weeks (.283, six doubles, 20 RBI) round out the group of top Rainbow Warrior batters. Weeks leads the Big West with 19 sacrifice bunts.
Hawai'i has 23 lettermen returning off last year's 28-23 squad that finished fifth in the Big West Conference at 10-14. Among the returnees are eight position starters and eight pitchers.
Hawai'i played its first Big West season in baseball in 2013 after 33 years in the Western Athletic Conference, claiming titles in 1991, 1992 and 2011 and the tournament crown in 2010. Cal Poly also played in the WAC in 1995 and 1996 before joining the Big West. The Rainbow Warriors reached the College World Series in 1980, finishing second, and have made 13 NCAA regional appearances.
Trapasso has led the Rainbow Warriors to winning records in 10 of his 17 seasons at the helm and 30 or more wins eight times, the last in 2012. He was named WAC Coach of the Year three times. Trapasso was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech for seven years and at Missouri and South Florida for three seasons each. He was a pitcher at Oklahoma State from 1984-86 and, drafted four times, pitched briefly for two years in the minor leagues.
Cal Poly has a 19-9 advantage over Hawai'i in the series dating back to 1995, sweeping the Rainbow Warriors four years ago in Honolulu as well as in 2015 at Baggett Stadium. Two years ago, the Mustangs overcame a 6-3 loss in the opener with 5-4 and 5-2 victories inside Les Murakami Stadium. Last spring inside Baggett Stadium, it was a repeat performance, Cal Poly bouncing back from an 11-1 loss in the opener with 15-5 and 7-1 wins. Larry Lee is 12-3 against Hawai'i while Trapasso is 3-12 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 has played four contests against Pac-12 schools, losing once to Oregon State in Surprise, Ariz., and three times to UCLA last weekend.
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 164 of their last 227 home games for a 72.4 winning percentage. 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 month 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 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 32.5 victories per season under Lee's guidance.
Lee (502-388-2) reached the 500-victory milestone April 20 with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. He surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. 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 an eight-game home stand Wednesday by hosting San Jose State and, next Friday through Sunday, entertaining UC Irvine for a three-game set.
Photos courtesy of Alexander Bohlen