Three-and-a-half weeks ago, the Cuesta College baseball team was going nowhere.
The Cougars opened the season as the fourth-ranked team in Southern California but stumbled out of the gate and fell to five games under .500 by the middle of conference play.
Sometime between then and Tuesday’s 7-4 victory over visiting Ventura, everything changed.
A nine-game winning streak started with an 11-2 victory over Oxnard on April 4, and the complexion of the season changed with a 13-6 comeback victory over local rival Allan Hancock two days later.
“We were down,” freshman outfielder Zack Domingues said, “and we weren’t playing very good baseball.
“We were playing Hancock, we were down by a couple runs, we had an inning where we scored eight and we just turned it around. Since that game, we’ve been playing with confidence. You can just tell out here, everybody’s playing with confidence.”
That much was evident Tuesday, when Cuesta (19-15, 13-5 WSC-N) clinched its second straight Western State Conference-North Division title and seventh in 11 years under head coach Bob Miller outright with the win.
Domingues, a Chico State transfer, was 2 for 4 with a two-run triple, former San Luis Obispo High standout Scott Shields was 2 for 4 with a two-run double, St. Mary’s transfer Nicolas Rosso was 2 for 4 and stole home plate, and Andrew Montanari was 2 for 5 with a run and an RBI.
In his first start of the season, Templeton High graduate Evan Peterson got the win on the mound, allowing three runs, two earned, on seven hits and two walks and five strikeouts in six innings.
Domingues was held without a walk, a rarity for a player who broke a single-season school record held by former Major Leaguer Doug Bernier.
With 34 hits in 107 at-bats, Domingues drew walks in his other 48 plate appearances. Bernier, who played for the Colorado Rockies in 2008 and also spent time in the minor league systems of the Rockies and the New York Yankees, had 47 walks for Cuesta in 1999.
“I’ve always been a guy that sees a lot of pitches,” Domingues said. “It means a lot to be in the record books. It’s pretty special.”
With two games left in the regular season, Cuesta has already clinched a first-round home playoff series, extending a postseason streak that’s grown as old as the average college freshman — two feats that seemed unlikely a month ago.
Freshman and former San Luis Obispo High standout Marco Murillo, 19, had just turned 1 the last time Cuesta missed the playoffs. Cal Poly’s Larry Lee was the head coach back then and began a streak that’s seen the Cougars reach the state final four three times.
“It’s consistency,” Miller said. “We’ve had teams that have been more talented than others, but the main staple we’ve tried to instill in the program, going back to Larry’s years has been competing, getting the most out of the teams. I’m proud of the consistency that we’ve put together.”
Players certainly respect the history. Domingues said he transferred to Cuesta for an opportunity to move up to a Division I program, and because his father is a former Santa Maria resident, he was well aware of the Cougars’ success.
Said Murillo, who was 3 for 4 with two runs and two steals and leads Cuesta with a .330 average: “Cuesta kind of gets overlooked when you’re a local because we have Cal Poly … but Cuesta’s a pretty big deal because they have a good reputation and kids coming in know what they’ve done, so they know they have to compete to get a spot.”
Pitching has been a key to this season’s resurgence.
Starters Andrew Nelson and Lucas Martin are responsible for 16 of the team’s 19 wins, and in five of the past seven victories, either Nelson or Martin has pitched a complete game.
That’s one reason why Peterson’s outing was timely. It would be nice for the Cougars to have another reliable starter to go to in a crucial situation.
“The bulk of the pitching the last couple weeks has really been by two guys,” Miller said. “So, we’ve been looking for some guys in the bullpen to help us down the stretch, and that was a great outing by him today to command the zone. It shows that he’s been working and preparing for the opportunity.”