Cal Poly’s best athletic program is not the guys in pads and helmets who draw the university’s largest single-game crowds. It’s not the basketball teams who every year have a decent shot at making it into the field for March Madness. It’s not the track and field program, which can count among its alums multiple Olympic athletes.
Cal Poly’s best representative in the arena of sports is the baseball team, where tucked away in the outer reaches of campus near the horses and pigs, head coach Larry Lee has developed a program that should be a bona fide NCAA Tournament team every year.
One day it could very well bring home a national championship. And why not? What does Cal State Fullerton have that Cal Poly doesn’t?
Last year, the team made it to college baseball’s version of the big dance, won a game and had eventual champ UCLA by the throat with a 4-0 lead in the late innings when a fly ball lost in the twilight spoiled the dream.
After the season, as has become increasingly common, Major League Baseball came calling, drafting five players, three of whom are now playing with minor league clubs, adding to a growing list of professional ballplayers who once called Baggett Stadium home.
At least five former Cal Poly players spent time in the majors last year, led by pitcher Bud Norris, who was traded from the Astros to the Orioles mid-season and re-signed with Baltimore in a one-year deal that will earn him $5.3 million.
Fast-forward to this year, and the Mustangs are off to a hot start again, opening the season with a sweep of No. 22 Kansas State, a team that made it to the super-regionals in last year’s tournament.
ESPN’s preseason power rankings had K-State slotted at an audacious No. 5, while Cal Poly didn’t make the top-20 list. After that series, the new week-one power rankings plopped the Mustangs down at No. 10, while Kansas State fluttered off the list entirely.
If you followed any of last weekend’s action, the series could be described as no less than total domination. Cal Poly outscored the Wildcats 18-3, outhitting them 33-11. In his first start of the season, Matt Imhof struck out 14 batters, tying Cal Poly’s Division I record. Poly completed the sweep with a 10-1 drubbing Sunday.
Then, the team took a trip to Santa Clara and crushed the Broncos 8-0 on the arm of a freshman making his first collegiate start. Through their first four games, Cal Poly pitches posted a combined 0.75 ERA, while the offense more than did its part, putting up 6.5 runs a game.
This is all well and good, but of course it was only four games, and Friday, the team headed to Westwood for a rematch with UCLA.
The Mustangs lost that game 5-2 but bounced back to beat the Bruins 8-0 on Saturday.
There is no doubt that this program is the real deal and can compete with anyone on the national stage. Playing on the West Coast in a warm-weather state in a strong baseball conference, Cal Poly is perfectly situated to become a perennial powerhouse.
The better the team performs each year, the more the rest of the nation east of the Mississippi takes notice, the larger the program’s profile grows. That means easier recruiting and higher-level talent considering Cal Poly as a launching pad for a pro baseball career.
Like any of the many ways Poly students succeed, those accomplishments help build esteem for the university, which is always valuable. For local baseball fans, this kind of ascension is about as good as it gets because it means we get to watch stars in the making. No other collegiate team here can compete so robustly at that level.
If you’ve never taken a trip out to the ballpark on a warm spring afternoon, now is the time. In a few years, that guy on the mound could be pitching at Dodger Stadium. You could say you saw him then, before he hit the big time, when he was a Mustang and perhaps helped take a small-town school from the California coast all the way to Omaha, Neb.
Could this be our year for a trip to the College World Series? We’ll see, but it’s going to happen someday and hopefully sooner rather than later.