The Cal Poly baseball team will open the 2012 season this weekend with a three-game series against 2011 NCAA Regional qualifier Oklahoma State inside Baggett Stadium.
The Mustangs finished the 2011 campaign with another winning season — their ninth since 2000 — posting a 27-26 overall record and going 15-9 in the Big West Conference by winning 16 of their final 23 contests after an 11-16 start a year ago.
The Mustangs, however, dropped their opening six games of the 2011 season, including an early three-game series against the Cowboys, starting in an early hole. The team rebounded near the tail end of the season finishing third in the Big West but will look to avoid another slow start by relying on the experience from last season.
“It’s a well-rounded team,” head coach Larry Lee said. “It should be a better offensive team, and we have the capability of being a better defensive team. Pitching-wise I think our team is deeper. It’s a real good group, very hard working, good chemistry and very team oriented.”
Cal Poly returns a young lineup this season that will feature five position starters and five pitchers from last year’s squad. The 2011 Mustangs were a heavily defensive-minded team as they set records for lowest ERA (3.60), fewest hits (443), runs (220), earned runs allowed (184), fewest walks allowed (152) and lowest opponents batting average (.254) in their 17 year Division 1 history.
Ace Mason Radeke graduated last season, so sophomore hurler Joey Wagman (4-8, 3.63 ERA) will be asked to fit the bill as the Friday night starter this season.
“It’s definitely going to be a great opportunity for me,” Wagman said. “I’m going to try and lead these guys and give my team the best chance to win every time I’m out there and it’s going to be real exciting for me.”
The rest of the weekend rotation will feature freshman southpaw Matt Imhof and junior right-hander Kyle Brueggemann on the mound. Junior transfer Nick Grim will fulfill the closer’s role for Lee’s youthful team in 2011.
Youth will also permeate the position starters this season, but are headlined by senior shortstop Mike Miller (.306, 23 RBI, seven steals), who will occupy the one hole in the batting order, and the No. 3 hitter junior center fielder Mitch Haniger. Miller suffered injury and sickness in 2011 and was sidelined for the last half of Big West play. Haniger was nominated as the Big West Freshman Player of the year in 2010 and led the team in home runs with six in 2011.
“We got to come out with a chip on our shoulder and be ready to play form the first pitch,” Haniger said. “We got to get ahead early, win each pitch and not worry about the outcome.”
The Mustangs will try to bring the bats to life after setting record lows in many offensive categories in 2011, including fewest runs scored (248) in their history.
“We need to be a little more patient at the plate,” Haniger said. “We need to see some more pitches. Last year, we would get ourselves out at the plate and by being more patient and more selective, we’ll make the pitcher work a lot harder and make hitting a lot easier.”
The Mustangs will also face a tough non-conference schedule that features baseball-powerhouse San Diego State, coached by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, twice this season. The Mustangs and Aztecs will duke it out for the last time as non-conference opponents before San Diego State makes the jump to the Big West in 2013.
Cal Poly will play 12 games against 2011 NCAA Regional qualifying teams, most notably versus Oklahoma State and Cal State Fullerton.
“The ultimate goal is definitely to win a national championship,” Wagman said. We definitely think we can. We’ve got a good group of hard working guys here, and I’m definitely looking forward to going out and playing with my teammates.”
The Mustangs took two out of three from Cal State Fullerton at home last season and will look to do the same this season. Cal Poly will also welcome Pac-12 opponent Washington for a three-game weekend series starting March 9.
“It’ll be a team that goes to work every game and battles for 27 outs,” Lee said. “We have high expectations of this team, and so do our players. But that’s just talk. We got to see what were all about when the lights go on for real.”