The Cal Poly baseball team knew Cal State Fullerton’s vaunted pitching staff was not going to allow many opportunities to score.
The No. 4 Titans didn’t disappoint at Baggett Stadium on Friday. And in those limited chances, neither did the Mustangs.
Cal Poly had runners in scoring position just three times, and the No. 23 Mustangs scored twice in a 2-1 victory to open a pivotal Big West Conference matchup in front of a sellout crowd of 2,158, the largest in four seasons.
“Deep down, you can exhale,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “Just getting to that Friday night game and just playing it, it’s a big buildup.”
Jordan Ellis was the offensive catalyst, Nick Torres came through in the clutch, and Joey Wagman pitched well enough to outduel Cal State Fullerton ace Thomas Eshelman as Reed Reilly slammed the door for a two-inning save in only the second road loss of the season for the Titans (32-6, 8-2 Big West).
Ellis went 3 for 4 in his third three-hit game of the year. His triple to lead off the bottom of the fourth inning allowed Jimmy Allen to tie the score with an RBI groundout.
When Allen bunted Ellis to second base in the sixth, Torres, who came into the series ranked third in the Big West in RBI, picked up his team-leading 30th with a line drive to center field.
What turned out to be the game-winning hit came on the seventh pitch of the at-bat after Torres had already fouled off two 3-2 pitches from Eshelman.
The sophomore right fielder ended up at second on the throw home but was stranded there on a flyout to the wall by Brian Mundell on the next at-bat.
“To be honest, that’s probably the best at-bat I’ve ever seen Nick take,” said Wagman, who improved to 8-2 on the season. “Three-two, and he shortens back up and battles and tried to get the job done. He fouled off a bunch of pitches and stayed in there. We can’t ask for anything more from him. It was unbelievable.”
The loss dropped Eshelman to 7-2 on the year and actually raised his ERA to 1.23. The Titans freshman had just one walk in 66 innings coming into the game and was allowing just one baserunner every other inning on average.
Eshelman struck out only three and gave up seven hits before leaving with one out in the seventh, but Cal Poly (26-9, 7-3 Big West) saw why few teams have had any measure of success against him.
“He tends to hit the black every time, the very edge of the plate,” Torres said. “With every pitch he throws, you question whether it’s going to be a ball or a strike because it’s perfectly placed. He’s unbelievable at doing that. His command is unreal.”
Wagman did not have his best stuff but got the job done.
Coming into the game ranked ninth in the country with 72 strikeouts, Wagman went without a strikeout through seven innings, allowing six hits and two walks and one first-inning run.
Before Friday, Wagman’s lowest strikeout total of the season was five. The new season low didn’t stop him from picking up his 22nd career win and tying him for fifth all-time in the program record books with Bruce Freeberg and San Luis Obispo High product Tyler Fitch.
“Good pitchers pitch to the game,” Lee said. “It’s not about how many hits you give up or how many runs allowed, they just win.”
Reilly pitched the final two innings for his 10th save of the season, moving him into a tie for third all-time on Cal Poly’s single-season list with Coast Union product Rocky Roquet.
Reilly allowed one walk and struck out one. He’s just four saves behind Mike Bille for the single-season program record.
The victory puts Cal Poly alone in second place in the Big West standings after losses by UC Riverside and Long Beach State helped break up a three-way tie. The Mustangs are one game behind Cal State Fullerton for the conference lead.
With victories today and Sunday, the Mustangs could have the conference lead to themselves by the end of the weekend.
Cal Poly sophomore left-hander Matt Imhof (4-1, 1.51 ERA) opposes unbeaten Titans freshman Justin Garza (7-0, 2.36 ERA) today.
“Now we get momentum going into the next game,” Ellis said, “and if we can win, momentum for the sweep.”