LOS ANGELES — The Cal Poly baseball team dreamt of revenge all offseason, but when the time came Friday night, it was more like a recurring nightmare.
After a hot start to the season, the No. 22 Mustangs (4-1) suffered their first defeat, 5-2 at No. 12 UCLA, the site of last year’s gut-wrenching defeat in the regional round of the NCAA postseason.
In that game, Cal Poly outfielder Nick Torres lost a fly ball in the air that went over his head and cost the Mustangs three runs and the lead in an eventual 6-4 loss to the Bruins, who went on to an undefeated run to the College World Series title.
The Mustangs entered the year focused and ready to right that perceived wrong.
Torres had an eerie reprisal in the field Friday when a third-inning line drive to right took a tricky hop and skipped away from him as he tried to snatch it. The hit rolled all the way behind him to the wall, and as Torres rushed to relay the ball, his throw went wide, allowing Ty Moore to essentially turn the single and two errors into a home run.
The Bruins also got runs in the first and and fourth innings by crushing fly balls from Cal Poly starter Matt Imhof over Tim Wise in left and Jordan Ellis in center. After four innings, UCLA led 4-0 to back a dominant start by sophomore right-hander James Kaprielian.
“This is a different level of team,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “These guys have been there, and they’re accustomed to playing in big ballgames. Not saying this is a big ballgame for them, but they just had a good approach in a lot of different areas. We came out well, but all of our offensive players have to kind of be dialed in to the same thing, and we weren’t.”
Cal Poly sophomore designated hitter Brian Mundell put the Mustangs on the board with a solo home run in the eighth inning. Mundell was 1 for 3 with a walk, and his first homer of the season made the score 5-1.
“It’s always good to get the first one out of the way,” said Mundell, who set the Cal Poly freshman program record with 10 home runs last season. “I’m thinking more I was just trying to create momentum. We were down five runs in the eighth inning. That’s a good time for a mometum shift.”
Pinch-hitter Brett Barbier added an RBI single against All-America UCLA closer David Berg in the ninth, but that and the four other Cal Poly hits, including two from sophomore infielder John Schuknecht, were not nearly enough.
UCLA totaled 11 hits, including four for extra bases, in a consistent offensive performance. Lee said when the Mustangs fell behind, they lost focus in the batter’s box.”
“We lost our discipline at the plate,” Lee said. “About the third inning, we started doing things that we weren’t capable of doing, lost our approach. It’s a lesson that we need to learn early in the season and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Cal Poly will get two more chances to updend the defnding national champions as the three-game series continues today and Sunday. Freshman Slater Lee gets his second career start for the Mustangs today at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Game 2.
Matt Imhof was the pitcher that saw his four-run lead on the Bruins evaporate in the sixth inning last June. He had a confidence-boosting offseason with USA Baseball and returned to Cal Poly by tying the program’s Division I single-game record with 14 strikeouts against then-No. 22 Kansas State last week.
Imhof struck out five in five innings Friday, but he allowed back-to-back hits to start the game, including a run-scoring double by Moore. With dozens of scouts training their radar guns on Imhof in the stands, the junior lefty allowed four runs, three earned, on six hits.
Whereas UCLA didn’t have a single batter hitting .300 or better last season and Imhof dominated with his first-pitch fastballs in the regional matchup, the Bruins looked like a completely different team.
“I got away with a lot of fastballs early to them last year and really dominated from there,” Imhof said. “Today, they kind of took that pitch away from me, and I really had to mix in some secondary stuff. I’d say they’re a better hitting team this year.
“I’m not going to lie, I wanted to win this one pretty badly, but I stayed within my gameplan. It hurts a little bit, but we still have two more games. If we come out with a series victory, I’m just as happy. I fully expect us to come out and really give it to them (today).”
Mustangs pitchers will have to do a much better job against Luke Persico. The Bruins freshman second baseman was 4 for 4 with two triples, a double and two RBI.
Kaprielian, who also pitched two perfect innings of relief in the regional victory over Cal Poly last summer, shined once again, allowing one run on three hits and a walk while striking out nine.
“He mixes his fastball and slider really well,” said Mundell, who noted Kaprielian’s low-90s fastball. “It’s always tough to see a guy in the 90s. A guy that can command a slider is somebody special. It tells a lot about him that he’s a Friday-night starter at UCLA as a sophomore because UCLA’s a good program.”