The early season momentum gained by the Cal Poly baseball team is all but gone. The Mustangs, losers of seven of their last 10 games, look to hang on in their final 17 regular season games with hopes of earning a trip to the NCAA Regional Championships for the first time since 2009.
The Mustangs (22-17, 6-6) enter this weekend’s home series against Pacific having dropped three of their first four Big West series. Sitting alone in fourth place in the conference standings, the Mustangs trail Long Beach State (18-19, 9-3) and Cal State Fullerton (26-13, 9-3) by three games and UC Santa Barbara (21-17, 7-5) by one. Cal Poly looks to reverse its mid-season slide with a sweep of the last-place Tigers in Baggett Stadium.
“In the past couple weeks, we’ve lost three games where we had the lead going into the ninth inning, and we just haven’t been able to finish games,” head coach Larry Lee said. “It’s taken us on a tailspin, and it’s going to be difficult to recover.”
The Mustangs dropped two of three on the road at No. 12-ranked Cal State Fullerton in a pivotal Big West series last weekend. Cal Poly had the Titans down to their final strike several times in the ninth and 10th innings, but Cal State Fullerton walked off with a 5-4 victory in extras after knotting the ballgame at four in the ninth. The Mustangs haven’t won a conference series at Fullerton since joining the Big West in 1997.
In its most recent game, Cal Poly dropped a 3-2 decision to 2008 national champion Fresno State after the Mustangs gave up a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to break up the 2-2 tie. The Bulldogs took the team’s only other meeting this year in come-from-behind fashion, scoring four runs in the ninth inning to edge Cal Poly 5-3 on April 17.
“Those are heartbreaking losses,” senior starting pitcher Kyle Anderson said. “If you win those games, you gain momentum. It’s just one of those things that hasn’t gone our way, but luckily for us, we have (four more Big West series) left.”
There’s no quick fix or special recipe to end the losing trend, Lee said. The Mustangs simply have to finish games more consistently, and that starts with the pitchers.
“With everybody healthy, we have a pretty good feel of our offense and defense,” Lee said. “Now it’s just a matter of our pitchers succeeding in the roles that they’re in.”
Cal Poly’s Saturday-night starter Anderson has succeeded in his role, owning a 6-1 record and an ERA of 2.47 entering the second half of conference play this weekend. His win total is tied for tops in the Big West and his ERA is good enough for seventh in the conference.
“Once we have a lead in that final inning, we just need to get that third out and finish it off,” Anderson said. “It just takes one game like that where relievers (Nick) Grim or Chase (Johnson) go out there and shut the door to get the ball rolling for the future.”
The Mustangs began the 2012 season on an unexpected tear winning nine of their first 12 contests and earning a No. 22 ranking before faltering at Santa Clara on March 6. Cal Poly started by sweeping a young Oklahoma State squad in its first three games of the year, outscoring the Cowboys 31-6 throughout the weekend series.
New roles have been forged all across the diamond as the Mustangs only returned five position starters and five pitchers from last year’s team. While youthful and inexperienced when compared to other Big West programs, Lee’s team performed better than expected through the conclusion of non-conference play with series wins against the likes of San Diego State and Pac-12 contender Washington.
“Our young players are getting better as the season progresses,” Lee said. “Everybody knows where they’re at, and we actually played some of our best baseball this past weekend at Fullerton — a real difficult place to play.”
Junior Mitch Haniger continues his dominant year at the plate, hitting .338, as he leads all conference batters with eight home runs on the season. He is two shy of fourth place all-time at Cal Poly in that department.
Veteran Mike Miller has also earned praise from Lee this season with solid play at shortstop and in the batter’s box. The senior leads all Mustangs with a .339 batting average and has started all 39 games this season for Cal Poly.
Stephan Teodosescu contributed to this report.