Cal Poly baseball receives berth in NCAA regional

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comMay 27, 2013 

When the name Cal Poly appeared on the dual television screens Monday, a collective roar bellowed through the home clubhouse at Baggett Stadium.

But the celebration only lasted a few moments before the din receded back to murmurs. Perhaps it was because the Mustangs baseball team felt safely into the 64-team NCAA postseason field — this time.

“I remember this time last year I went to sleep really rattled. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said senior second baseman Denver Chavez, who missed the team’s gathering but showed up later for a midday practice, “and this year, I slept through the whole selection thing because I knew we were in.”

Cal Poly (39-17) was awarded the No. 2 seed in the UCLA-hosted Los Angeles Regional and will play No. 3 San Diego (35-23), the West Coast Conference Tournament champion, Friday at 2 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium. The No. 1 Bruins (39-17) will play No. 4 San Diego State (35-23), the Mountain West Conference Tournament champion, at 6 p.m. in the double-elimination format.

Last season, the Mustangs were one of the first five teams left out of the postseason. Despite a second-place finish in the Big West Conference, a 36-20 record and a high-scoring seven-game winning streak to wrap the regular season in 2012, Cal Poly was disappointed by the selection committee.

That team featured Big West Player of the Year and compensatory first-round draft pick Mitch Haniger and standout shortstop Mike Miller as well as a potent combination of weekend starters in Joey Wagman and Kyle Anderson.

With Wagman back as a senior and the others playing in the minors, the 2013 Mustangs have a better résumé — cemented by a school record for victories and a top-25 RPI ranking.

“We kind of feel like if we were a bigger name, we’d probably get that bid,” sophomore outfielder Nick Torres said of the previous year’s snub. “We just have to play well season after season, keep getting ourselves more publicity, more hype, and we’ll be that much better off in the future.

“If you put the two teams against each other, last year’s team maybe beats this team, but I like the chemistry on the team a lot this year. Everybody’s rooting for each other, pulling on the same side of the rope, and that’s an intangible that counts for more than people think.”

Cal Poly was very much on the bubble midway through this season despite marquee nonconference victories in a sweep at San Francisco and a series win at Kansas State. The Dons are the No. 3 seed in the Eugene Regional hosted by Oregon, and the Wildcats are hosting one of their own.

The Mustangs lost back-to-back conference series to eventual No. 5 national seed Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State in April before rallying to win 11 of their past 13 regular-season games.

Even after a 2-1 series loss to UC Irvine, whose bubble burst this postseason, Cal Poly still looked to have a great chance if it continued to win. A sweep of Cal State Northridge to overtake the Matadors for second place in the conference standings in the penultimate series of the season likely sealed the Mustangs’ berth.

“We had a better feeling this year that we were in, and we were looking to see where we were going to get placed,” Wagman said. “We saw a bunch of predictions in UCLA, Eugene and Oregon State up in Corvallis. We didn’t know where we were going to get put, but we had a better feeling that we were already in. We just wanted to know who we were matched up against.”

San Diego won seven of its past nine regular-season games, including a 3-1 record in the WCC Tournament. The Toreros are led by third baseman Kris Bryant, a candidate to become the No. 1 overall pick whose 31 home runs lead the nation by 11 over his closest competitor.

Aside from Torres, who played summer collegiate baseball for the Corvallis Knights, the Mustangs were glad to be placed in the all-California regional.

Cal Poly would have likely driven to Los Angeles anyway before flying to Portland and driving to either Eugene or Corvallis.

As it is, the Mustangs are traveling a well-worn path into Big West territory, and fans will have an easier trip, too.

“It’s a 31⁄2-hour bus ride just like a conference series,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “There’s no excuses about jet lag or the travel, so that’s a good thing.”

UC Santa Barbara (34-23) is the third Big West team in the field, appearing as the No. 3 seed in the Corvallis Regional.

The Gauchos had one more victory and one more loss than UC Irvine (33-22), which Lee said was the best conference opponent the Mustangs played outside of runaway champion Cal State Fullerton.

UC Santa Barbara is in its first regional since 2001, and the Big West has more than two teams in the postseason for the first time since 2009.

The inclusion of the Gauchos was bittersweet for Cal Poly, as the audible groan heard in the clubhouse when UC Santa Barbara was announced revealed.

The Mustangs have to be happy about the respect for the conference being high enough to reward a nontraditional power in the Gauchos, but the wounds of snubs in previous seasons remain.

If UC Santa Barbara can get in this season, why not the Mustangs last year? How about 2005, when the Cal Poly rotation featured four pitchers who would play in the Major Leagues, two more who were drafted and a couple other undrafted free-agent signees?

Lee said he’s hoping for a time when the conference will be worthy of three or four postseason berths without having to stand up to intense scrutiny. The Southeastern Conference got nine teams in this year. The Atlantic Coast Conference got eight.

“We won’t ever get to that level,” Lee said, “but it would be nice to where you’re playing late in the season and you’re the third- or fourth-best team in the Big West, and there’s a realistic chance of you getting in.

“Although we weren’t on the bubble this year, we’re always on the bubble. This is the first time in my 11 years we weren’t a bubble team, but it took a lot of wins and a lot of games played to get to that point.”

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