Sunday had a familiar sinking feeling for the Cal Poly baseball team.
Another emotional rally against the Big West Conference’s premier program was soured by a heartbreaking loss in the end.
Just like last year, it cost the Mustangs the series. With a month left to go in the regular season, they’re hoping it doesn’t similarly cost them a chance at the postseason.
No. 23 Cal Poly fought back from a three-run third-inning deficit to tie the score in the bottom of the eighth, but No. 4 Cal State Fullerton struck for two runs against Mustangs closer Reed Reilly in the ninth to earn a 6-4 win and 2-1 series victory.
“We tied it, had the momentum,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said, “had the right guy on the mound, and it’s disappointing because this opportunity’s over. We had a chance to win this series and really help us out in a lot of different ways.”
A win would have put Cal Poly (26-11, 7-5 Big West) one game back of Cal State Fullerton (34-6, 10-2 Big West) in the conference standings.
A victory over a highly-rated team would also have gone a long way in helping the Mustangs’ RPI rating, which the NCAA uses to help determine at-large regional berths.
Cal Poly jumped nearly 20 spots in the RPI poll with Friday’s 2-1 victory over the Titans and two more with Saturday’s 10-5 loss.
Now three games back with 15 Big West games left to play, it’s not impossible for the Mustangs to overtake Cal State Fullerton for the conference title and automatic postseason berth that comes along with it, but they will need some help.
After last season’s 5-4, 10-inning, series-clinching Sunday loss in Fullerton — one where Cal Poly had a two-run, go-ahead, ninth-inning rally go for naught — the Mustangs went on to win 16 of their final 20 games but finished one game back of the Titans for the conference lead.
That was enough to leave them out of the NCAA Regionals.
That’s why a total 6,483 spectators — the second highest amount for a three-game set in Baggett
Stadium history — showed up over the course of the weekend. Victories over the Titans could help put San Luis Obispo on the map in a lot of minds.
“The Big West is an incredibly good baseball conference,” Cal Poly third baseman Jimmy Allen said, “but since we’re out here on the West Coast — especially SLO, it’s kind of a small city that most people on the East Coast don’t know about — it’s hard for us, but we just have to take one game at a time.”
The Mustangs clawed back into the game one run at a time.
Elliot Stewart gave Cal Poly the first lead of the game, tripling with two out in the second inning and scoring on a wild pitch, and starting pitcher Bryan Granger got through the first two innings unscathed.
But Cal State Fullerton’s Matt Chapman roped a line-drive home run to lead off the third, and the Titans scored four runs off Granger without recording an out before the Mustangs went to reliever Michael Holback.
Holback and Taylor Chris combined to shut out Cal State Fullerton over the next five innings with Holback facing the minimum, and Cal Poly scored single runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Three of the Mustangs’ four runs came with two outs.
David Armendariz had a two-out double in the sixth, and Allen had an RBI single with two out in the seventh.
Even Peter Van Gansen’s RBI fielder’s choice in the eighth could have potentially ended the inning.
Titans second baseman Jake Jeffries went for the double play on the ground ball to the right side, but couldn’t make a catchable throw and was only fortunate enough to get one out when Armendariz accidentally slid past second base.
Armendariz and Brian Mundell were each 2 for 5 for the Mustangs, and Allen was 2 for 5.
In the top of the ninth, Cal State Fullerton got back-to-back one-out singles by Matt Chapman and Austin Deimer — both with two strikes — to put runners at the corners.
Titans right fielder Austin Kingsolver served up a double play ball to Denver Chavez at second, but Kingsolver was called safe in a bang-bang play at first, allowing Chapman to score the go-ahead run.
Cal State Fullerton used a catchers interference call against Stewart to help set up its insurance run, and closer Michael Lorenzen retired Cal Poly in order in the bottom of the ninth.
“It was a roller coaster,” Armendariz said. “It happened last year, too, same type of emotion, same type of atmosphere. We executed, and they executed. It was a well-played game. Pretty upsetting the way it turned out, but I think we showed a lot of character.
“I believe that we will run into these guys in the future again in a regional or a super regional. We’ve just got to keep working though.”