Cal Poly pitcher Matt Imhof tallied a career high in strikeouts and picked up his sixth win of the season to help the Mustangs keep their postseason momentum building in the right direction.
And the sophomore left-hander has senior catcher Elliot Stewart to thank on a couple of fronts.
Tired of seeing his starter piling on the pressure after repeatedly falling behind early in the count, Stewart yelled out from behind the plate.
He got on Imhof’s case in the third inning, demanding he start getting ahead, and the pitcher answered back with his arm, totaling 12 strikeouts in a series-clinching 6-2 victory over Cal State Northridge at Baggett Stadium on Saturday.
“I like the energy he brings,” Imhof said. “He gets fired up back there, and he’s not afraid to tell me when he thinks I’m doing something wrong.”
Stewart also had the game’s big hit, a two-run home run that gave the Mustangs a three-run lead in the bottom of the fourth.
With Cal Poly (26-16, 14-9 Big West Conference) leading the Matadors (31-22, 15-8 Big West) 2-1, David Armendariz led off with a walk, and Stewart started a three-run rally with a drive over the left-field wall.
“Dave got on first base,” Stewart said, “and I think they were expecting me to sac bunt.
“They picked off twice in a row, so I made it look like I was going to sac bunt to get my fastball. They threw me a fastball, and I just got all of it. It was all part of the plan.”
It was his seventh home run of the season, one he started as a twice-a-week platoon player and has gone on to become the clear starter behind the plate.
“That’s who Elliot’s been this year,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “When he puts the ball in play, it’s an extra-base hit. As not an everyday guy, now he has become one because he gives us a better chance of being offensive at that position.”
Stewart was just 1 for 4 with Cal Poly’s lone extra-base hit but added a third RBI on a groundout in the third inning. Nick Torres went 2 for 3 with two RBI, John Shuknecht was 2 for 3 with a run, and Denver Chavez went 4 for 5 with a run and an RBI.
Imhof and reliever Michael Holback did the rest on the mound.
The 6-foot-5 starter went 6 1⁄3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits and two walks. His 12 strikeouts were one more than his previous career high, which he accomplished twice this season in starts against Notre Dame and Hawaii.
With the effort, Imhof moved into second place in the Big West in strikeouts (86) behind teammate Joey Wagman, who leads the conference with 96 and had nine strikeouts in a 5-1 win over Cal State Northridge on Friday.
Imhof is “just nasty, man,” Stewart said. “He’s a big, tall lefty, so he just throws hard, and it’s deceiving. He’s got cut in his fastball, and he was able to throw the slider for a strike today and pretty much just blow by guys.”
Imhof has become a consistent strikeout threat through improving his strength and conditioning.
After settling in as a middle reliever last year, he dropped about 25 pounds while building his strength in the offseason.
It’s helped him increase both his fastball velocity — which is now up to 94 mph — and his stamina. Even with the increase in innings, Imhof has raised his strikeout-per-nine-inning rate from 5.89 in 2012 to 8.57 this season.
And Lee said Imhof is a great complement to Wagman, who is one victory away from tying the single-season program record for wins.
“Similar mindsets,” Lee said. “They want the ball. Any type of pressure situations, they thrive in that environment. They want the ball as long as they can keep it.”
Imhof had to hand over the ball after allowing two baserunners with one out in the seventh. Holback came on with the tying run on deck and finished off the game for his second save of the season.
The junior reliever struck out five of the eight batters he faced, while allowing two hits and walking none.
Going for the sweep today at 1 p.m., Cal Poly will have a new Sunday starter. Freshman Casey Bloomquist (5-1, 4.58 ERA) will move from his normal Tuesday slot for the final two series of the regular season.
Because the Mustangs have no midweek game before their series next week at Pacific, Lee will move Bloomquist, who has been one of Cal Poly’s most effective starters, to the weekend.
The Mustangs are out of the Big West Conference title race, but they can move into a tie for second place with the Matadors if they complete the sweep.
Now, with an RPI in the top 30, all that really matters is winning as many games as possible.
“The motto of the team this year is ‘Never Satisfied,’ ” Stewart said. “So, no matter what we do, we’re just focused on the game ahead. Regardless of what our RPI is or what place we are in the Big West, we just need to win every game.”