Michael Holback did not come to San Luis Obispo with any promises of playing time or athletic scholarship money.
He felt lucky to get a walk-on tryout with the Cal Poly baseball team in the fall of 2010, and when he was the last person cut from the team before the start of the season in February, he figured it was time to move on.
Mustangs coaches told him to come out again the following season. It’s not that they didn’t like him, it was just … you know. They can only keep 35 guys.
So, Holback joined the club team at Cal Poly, a non-varsity program that plays intercollegiate games but is not funded by the athletic department.
He might have come close to making the varsity roster but new recruits would surely push him further down the depth chart the next year, he thought.
“I didn’t really see anything going any farther,” Holback said, “and they said they were bringing in other guys.
“I had a lot of doubts in my mind, so I was honestly thinking I was going to be playing club ball the rest of my time at Cal Poly.”
Fast forward to today, and the junior right-hander is one of the most valued members of the Mustangs pitching staff.
Cal Poly (24-9, 6-3 Big West Conference) suffered a stinging 7-6 loss to visiting Hawaii (8-24, 3-6 Big West) to wrap up a three-game series victory Sunday, but the Mustangs might not have even been in the game if not for Holback, who threw five scoreless innings of relief.
Denver Chavez was 1 for 4 with a run and two RBI, David Armendariz was 2 for 4 with two runs in his return to the lineup after two games on the bench and Nick Torres and Elliot Stewart each doubled for the Mustangs.
Hawaii had a 5-0 lead in the middle of the third inning before Cal Poly twice pulled to within a run, but pinch-hitter Tim Wise struck out and Armendariz grounded out with the tying run at third base in the eighth inning.
Former San Luis Obispo High and Cuesta College standout Max Duval was 2 for 4 with a run in his second start of the season for the Rainbows.
Holback hit a rough patch in his past few appearances, but he allowed only two hits, walked two and struck out six against Hawaii — terrific for a former San Jose Willow Glen High standout who credits much of his development to the path he’s taken.
With Cal Poly trailing 6-4 and two Rainbows runners on base with one out in the bottom of the fourth, Holback allowed an inherited runner to score but retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced.
Using a fastball topping out at 93 mph and complementing it with a slider and changeup in the low 80s, Holback lowered his season ERA to 3.86, and his 28 innings pitched this season rank fifth on the team.
“You saw what he was capable of,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “You saw a guy that can mix, has more than one quality pitch and can execute a gameplan.”
Lee’s only wish is that Holback were still a redshirt sophomore, which is what he would have been had he not played with the club team.
The fact surprised even Lee because, in his 16 seasons coaching Cal Poly, Holback is the only one of his kind.
“We had never had anybody that practiced with us all the way to February play for the club team,” Lee said. “It never entered my mind, and then I finally caught wind of it, and even at that point, because it was so unfamiliar, I didn’t realize playing club ball would cost a year of eligibility.”
Playing for the club team, however, did open doors that might not have existed otherwise, Holback said.
Former San Francisco Giants farmhand Anthony Pannone — who was earning his degree after advancing as far as AAA — was a club team coach that year.
When Pannone joined the summer collegiate San Luis Obispo Blues coaching staff later that summer, he helped persuade Blues manager Chal Fanning to bring Holback onto the team, and that was where Holback said he started to really develop as a pitcher.
Holback struck out 22 batters in 19.1 innings but was just 1-2 with a 6.05 ERA for the Blues.
“But it was just being on that team and throwing as much as I was,” Holback said. “I just really got to learn the game a lot more by being on the club team and going to that summer team. So, I really think it was the best thing for me.”