Power is a big part of Elliot Stewart’s profile.
The Cal Poly baseball catcher has worked his way into 31 of the team’s 42 games forcing 2012 all-Big West Conference catcher Chris Hoo to the bench almost half the time — mostly because he hits the ball hard.
Stewart was third on the team in homers and fourth in doubles going into Friday night’s 4-1 victory in the conference series opener against visiting UC Riverside and doing it by earning a reputation as a tough out.
As Mustangs head coach Larry Lee put it: “He gives you the double, the home run. He gives you the hit-by-pitch, the walk and he grinds at-bats.”
So, it was somewhat surprising when Stewart pinch-hit for Hoo in the seventh inning and had an atypical at-bat for a grinder, clobbering the first pitch he saw over the wall in left for the game-
winning three-run home run, his fifth of the season.
Left-handed Highlanders starter Dylan Stewart was reeling. He gave up a monstrous solo home run to Brian Mundell earlier in the inning, squandering a 1-0 lead. David Armendariz and Peter Van Gansen each singled to put runners at the corners with one out.
Stewart came in thinking a sacrifice fly might be all he needed to win with ace Joey Wagman looking strong on the mound.
“I never think home run,” Stewart said, “but I definitely wanted to elevate something. I was talking to the guys in the dugout about how he was pitching people all game. I knew he was going to come with a change-up right there. He left it up, and I just got all of it.”
Said Mundell: “He’s probably one of the first guys I’ve ever seen go up in a pinch-hit situation and swing at the first pitch for a home run. That’s just unheard of.”
Cal Poly (29-14, 9-7 Big West) broke its first three-game losing streak of the season by beating the Highlanders (18-23, 7-9 Big West), a team the Mustangs need to handle to hold on to their standing as a potential NCAA regional at-large team.
Mundell hit his ninth homer of the season, tying Matt Jensen’s 2009 total for most home runs by a freshman in Division I program history, and Wagman (10-2) pitched his third complete game of the season and moved within two of Garrett Olson’s program record of 12 wins in a season.
In one of his most effective outings of the season, Wagman allowed five hits and struck out seven, including UC Riverside designated hitter Kyle Boudreau to end the game. He didn’t allow a walk, and the Highlanders’ only run came on a two-out double by Joe Chavez in the third inning.
His complete game gave Cal Poly relievers a timely night off.
“That just keeps us fresh for the next two games,” Lee said. “We’ve been a little tired in our bullpen. We’ve been very successful in our bullpen, but it’s great to be able to take another day off and be rejuvenated and fresh for the next opportunity.”
Jordan Ellis, Nick Torres and Armendariz were each 2 for 4 for the Mustangs. Van Gansen was 2 for 3, and Armendariz added a double.
Mundell was just 1 for 4, but one of the outs was a deep drive to the warning track in centerfield that UC Riverside outfielder Devyn Bolasky grabbed with a leaping catch against the wall.
It was just a long out, but the drive helped Mundell gain confidence for his later at-bat. The freshman has had to adjust to college baseball after opening the season on fire at the plate and cooling off over the past few weeks.
“I think I’m back on track in a way,” Mundell said. “I’m just seeing balls deep and hitting balls hard now. The adjustment for me was clearing my mind in a way where I cannot think when I’m hitting and trust my skills and trying to adjust on the fly and not guess pitches.”
Stewart has been on a recent tear and credits some adjustments made in the batting cages under the guidance of assistant coach Alex Hoover.
In his past five games, Stewart has five hits — two three-run home runs, two doubles and a triple — for seven RBI.
He’s made a full recovery from elbow ligament replacement surgery in his throwing arm that caused him to miss all of last season.
Known commonly as Tommy John surgery, the procedure doesn’t seem to have limited Stewart. Lee said he’s better than ever defensively, and the recovery hasn’t dampened his swing.
“It did in the beginning,” Stewart said. “I couldn’t take the amount of swings I wanted, but I put in so much work. I had nothing else to do but hit, take one-armed swings and stuff like that. So, I still got my work in, and it’s completely fine now.”