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Cal Poly Opens 12-Game Home Stand vs. Saint Mary’s This Weekend

Cal Poly Opens 12-Game Home Stand vs. Saint Mary’s This Weekend
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (7-11 overall, 0-0 Big West), which swept Columbia in its last series at home and won one of three games at Baylor last weekend, continues its 30-game home schedule this weekend with a four-game non-conference series against the Saint Mary's Gaels (13-7 overall, 3-0 West Coast) inside Baggett Stadium. 
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Gaels of sixth-year head coach Eric Valenzuela square off Friday at 6 p.m., followed by a 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday and a 1 p.m. series finale Sunday. All four games of the series will be broadcast on ESPN Radio (1280 AM and 101.7 FM) 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
Coming off a 31-23 campaign, including a 14-13 mark for fifth place in the West Coast Conference, Saint Mary's returns 14 letter winners, including six position starters and six pitchers. Top returnees are designated hitter Kevin Milam (.302, five home runs, 29 RBI in 2018), outfielder Matt Green (.289, 16 RBI) and first baseman Austin Chauvin (.283, 17 RBI). Top returning pitchers include southpaw Kevin Waldichuk (8-4, 2.05 ERA in 2018) and right-handers Milam (6-4, 3.68 ERA) and Michael Hobbs (3-3, 4.24 ERA, 11 saves).
Saint Mary's, which has claimed one West Coast Conference title (2016) and has yet to earn a College World Series berth, made its first NCAA regional appearance in 2016. The Gaels have won 1,144 games since their modern era began in 1968, averaging 22 wins per campaign.
Saint Mary's has played a strong non-conference schedule with 10 games against Pac-12 schools, sweeping a four-game set against Washington State, losing all three contests at Oregon and winning one of three at Cal. The Gaels also own three wins over Utah Valley and opened West Coast play last weekend by sweeping Pacific, 5-3, 1-0 in 10 innings and 12-7 in Moraga. On Tuesday, Saint Mary's fell to Nevada 6-5 in Reno.
Valenzuela (sixth season, 127-118, Pepperdine '01) engineered a remarkable turnaround of the Saint Mary's baseball program in just his first four years, turning SMC into an annual contender after it posted just three .500-or-better seasons in the 22 years before his arrival. In 2016 and '17, he led the Gaels to consecutive postseason appearances -- the first in program history -- while grabbing their first-ever West Coast Conference regular season title, WCC Tournament title and NCAA regional appearance in 2016. He guided the team to back-to-back 30-win seasons in '16 (33) and '17 (38) for the first time in 26 years (1990-91).
He served two seasons as an assistant at Saint Mary's from 2002-03 and was one of the nation's premier assistant coaches for head coach Tony Gwynn at San Diego State for four years and six years as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of San Diego. Valenzuela was an All-American performer at Bishop Amat High School, began his collegiate career at Arizona State and finished up at Pepperdine, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice.
Cal Poly and Saint Mary's are meeting for the first time since the 2014 season when the Mustangs won both midweek games during their Big West Conference championship seasons. Cal Poly leads the all-time series, 31-12. Larry Lee is 10-2 against the Gaels while Valenzuela is 0-2 versus the Mustangs.
Saint Mary's top hitters five weeks into the 2019 season are outfielder Ryan Novis (.434, 26 RBI), outfielder Joe Vranesh (.412, seven doubles, four home runs, 19 RBI) and Milam (.297, nine doubles, 13 RBI). Heading the pitching staff are right-handers Milam (3-1, 5.01 ERA) and Tyler Thornton (3-0, 2.95 ERA) along with southpaw Ken Waldichuk (2-1, 3.23 ERA).
Saint Mary's was No. 1 in Division I with a .990 fielding percentage, committing just seven errors in 19 games, before making three errors at Nevada. The Gaels are hitting .289 as a team with nine steals in 18 attempts and a 3.92 staff ERA. Saint Mary's is ranked No. 13 in doubles with 46 and 26th in sacrifice bunts with 14.
Cal Poly's first two wins of 2019 were a pair of midweek triumphs against Central California rival and future Big West Conference member CSU Bakersfield. The Mustangs swept a four-game series versus Columbia and earned a 3-1 win in the middle game of the Baylor series last weekend in Waco, Texas. Also last week, Cal Poly led Pepperdine 11-6 when play in Malibu was suspended in the eighth inning due to darkness. The game will be completed May 7 in San Luis Obispo.
Lee welcomed back 18 letter winners this spring, including five position players who made 25 or more starts in 2018, and eight pitchers, including three who have made 10 or more career starts.
The list of veterans is led by junior center fielder Bradlee Beesley, who hit .277 with 12 doubles and 33 RBI a year ago, was a second-team All-Big West selection in 2017 after hitting .305 and also had a solid Cape Cod League season with Yarmouth-Dennis last summer, hitting .368. After hitting .517 in the first seven games this season, Beesley has cooled off, sporting a .288 mark with 12 RBI.
In addition to Beesley, also returning are sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson (.280, five home runs, 38 RBI in 2018), senior shortstop Dylan Doherty and sophomore third baseman Nick DiCarlo, both .226 hitters a year ago. Junior utility player Scott Ogrin, who hit .266 with 26 RBI last spring, likely will  miss the 2019 season with a foot injury.
The pitching corps is led by sophomore right-hander Darren Nelson (5-4, 4.79 ERA in 2018), senior righty Jarred Zill (0-1, 3.00 ERA in five starts a year ago), who missed most of both the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to injury, and junior right-hander Bobby Ay (1-6, 5.40 ERA in 2017, made just one appearance in 2018 before he was sidelined with an injury).
Leading the team six weeks into the 2019 season is sophomore right fielder Elijah Greene with a .304 average and seven RBI while Samuelson owns a .290 mark with eight RBI.
Cal Poly's weekend rotation so far this season has consisted of sophomore right-hander Darren Nelson (1-3, 2.45 ERA), senior righty Jarred Zill (0-4, 3.95 ERA) and junior right-hander Bobby Ay (1-0, 3.68 ERA). Freshman Bryan Woo (1-0, 5.25 ERA), also a right-hander, will start the remaining game in the Saint Mary's series after pitching five innings for the win against Columbia on March 9.
A year ago, the Mustangs were No. 1 in the Big West in team hitting, on-base percentage, hits, doubles, triples, walks and turning double plays. Twenty of Cal Poly's 24 Big West games were decided by four or fewer runs. The Mustangs defeated UC Davis 16-0 and the three remaining games were six-run decisions, Cal Poly winning twice, and the Mustangs won six of 13 weekend series, sweeping Dartmouth, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
Including this season, the Mustangs have been tormented by slow starts — 3-11 before finishing 28-28 (won seven of last nine games) in 2017, 6-10 before wrapping up the 2018 campaign 30-27 (winning their final seven contests), and 2-9 prior to the Columbia series sweep. Cal Poly also opened the 2015 season 7-14 but rallied to finish 27-27 (winning 17 of its last 26 games).
Cal Poly will play 17 games against 2018 NCAA Regional participants this spring, has a 12-game home stand in late March and early April, 30 home games in all and will play 10 contests against Pac-12 schools — three-game series against Cal and USC at home and versus College World Series participant Washington and a single game against Stanford on the road. The Mustangs' first three series on the road this season — at Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor — are against teams that earned regional berths a year ago along with Cal State Fullerton, Saint Mary's and Stanford.
Cal Poly has had just three losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 12 times this century. The Mustangs have won 173 of their last 239 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 five second-place finishes, four thirds and six fourths since becoming a member of the conference in 1997. Cal Poly has finished in the top five of the Big West standings 14 times in Lee's previous 16 seasons with the Mustangs. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
While all 56 Mustang games in 2017 were played in the Golden State, Cal Poly played four games in a tournament at Surprise, Ariz., visited Nebraska for a four-game series and traveled to Hawai'i for a three-game Big West series in 2018. In addition to Oklahoma and Washington, the Mustangs made another out-of-state trip to Baylor this spring.
Over the last seven seasons from 2012-18, Cal Poly has won 240 games, the third-highest total among the 24 California schools with Division I programs. Averaging 35 wins per season during those seven campaigns, the victory total is eighth 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 (520-402-2) reached the 500-victory milestone last April 20 with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. His 520 wins to date are No. 2 in the conference behind Fresno State's Bob Bennett (547) and Lee's 212 conference wins also are No. 2 in the Big West behind Long Beach State's Dave Snow (218).
Lee 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 notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13, 2017 against Gonzaga. With 980 career wins at Cuesta and Cal Poly, Lee is just 20 victories shy of the 1,000 mark.
Next week, Cal Poly opens Big West Conference play with a three-game series against CSUN inside Baggett Stadium. Games are on Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 1 o'clock.
Photo at top of Cal Poly middle infielder Willie Cano and, at left, reliever Dylan Villalobos courtesy of Stephen Wandzura