There are more than two dozen ways to record an out in baseball.
The Cal Poly pitching staff has become one of the best in the country by focusing on just one: The strikeout.
The Mustangs rank eighth in the country with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings and improved that standing with another dominant pitching performance in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Hawaii at Baggett Stadium.
Sophomore starter Matt Imhof tied a career-high with 11 strikeouts, and closer Reed Reilly added two more in 1 2⁄3 innings while picking up his ninth save of the season to back a Cal Poly offense that managed just four hits.
Mixing sliders in with a fastball topping out in the low 90s, Imhof had 10 strikeouts through the first five innings.
“That’s the way to really get to your opponents,” the lefty starter said. “It’s really the dominance factor in the game. If you’re striking a lot of guys out, that means you have your good stuff.
“When we get to two strikes, our mindset is we’re going to strike this guy out. We don’t like contact.”
It’s a philosophy that runs staff-wide, from first-year pitching coach Thomas Eager and head coach Larry Lee, who calls pitches, to the players executing the gameplan.
Friday night starter Joey Wagman, who had eight strikeouts in an 8-3 victory over the visiting Rainbows (7-24, 2-6 Big West Conference) on Friday, leads the Big West with 72 strikeouts.
With a fastball in the upper 80s, Wagman isn’t blowing hitters away. He’s using his control. With more powerful arms, Imhof (57) and Reilly (49) also rank in the top five in the conference in strikeouts.
“This year, we’re a lot better at accuracy,” Reilly said, “especially with Wags leading the staff.
“Everyone on the staff takes pride in their strikeouts. It proves how nasty your stuff is or in Wags’ case, how pinpoint he is.”
The strikeout strategy is somewhat of a departure from conventional wisdom, which dictates that the quickest way to get through a game is to pitch to contact.
But with Cal Poly (24-8, 6-2 Big West) totaling 13 strikeouts Saturday, the Mustangs completed the fastest game in the 13-year history of Baggett Stadium.
The 1-hour, 57-minute contest eclipsed a 4-2 victory over UC Davis by former Cal Poly starter Steven Fishback in 2011.
“It’s a philosophy that we want to strike everyone out,” Lee said, “and you never really hear that. You always hear pitch to contact, but I’m just the opposite. If the situation dictates, we want to strike everyone out. We rarely give into hitters. We want to attack their weaknesses.
“It all depends on who’s on the mound or the situation of the game, but for the most part, we try to go after everybody.”
Despite the struggles at the plate, Hawaii had five hits and nearly pulled off a late comeback trailing 3-0 in the eighth inning.
Cal Poly left fielder Tim Wise dropped a deep fly ball while backpedaling toward the wall, and former San Luis Obispo High standout Max Duval scored from second on a play that ended up chasing Imhof.
The Rainbows got a sacrifice fly by Pi’ikea Kitamura against Reilly in the next at-bat to pull within one run, but Reilly got the final out of the inning after an intentional walk and retired the side in order in the top of the ninth.
Duval, a senior and also a former Cuesta College standout, was 0 for 2 with a walk and a run in his first start of the season.
Cal Poly got its runs on two sacrifice flies by Nick Torres and a first-inning throwing error.
Jimmy Allen was 1 for 4 with a triple and two runs, Denver Chavez was 1 for 3 with a run, and Brian Mundell broke an 0-for-19 slump by going 1 for 3 with an infield single in the first.
The Mustangs needed the dominant pitching on the light hitting night. Thanks largely to its pitching, Cal Poly improved to 9-3 in one-run games, and Imhof delivered after a subpar outing at UC Santa Barbara, where he allowed four runs, three earned, in five innings of a 13-2 loss last week.
This week, he was only four outs away from his first complete-game shutout.
“I wanted to finish that game,” Imhof said. “When I went out there in the eighth, my mindset was I’m going to finish this game and get the shutout.
“I had my good stuff.”