In soccer and basketball, Cal Poly-UC Santa Barbara games are the biggest thing going on both campuses.
The Blue-Green Rivalry hasn’t quite attained the same importance on the baseball diamond.
In part, that’s because the Central Coast programs are usually pursuing the traditional powers of the Big West Conference, teams such as Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine in recent years.
But all that has changed going into this weekend’s series between the Mustangs and Gauchos.
No. 5 Cal Poly (24-4, 3-0 Big West) and No. 17 UC Santa Barbara (19-5, 1-2 Big West) have been among the class of the conference for the past year, which makes Friday’s three-game series opener an intriguing matchup, not just locally but on the national scene as well.
“It’s not a rivalry for us,” said Mustangs head coach Larry Lee, noting the raw emotion fueling the matchup in other sports, “and I don’t think we’ll ever have a rivalry in baseball, but our fans appreciate a quality team coming in, and they’ll be excited to have them here, especially because they’re having a good season.”
The length of the baseball season and Cal Poly’s philosophy of avoiding emotional highs and lows throughout it don’t really lend to building up opponents.
But there is no question this is one of the biggest series on the schedule.
The Mustangs are getting more respect than ever with their run of 17 wins in 18 home games this season.
They’ve come out on top in series against heavy hitters Kansas State, UCLA and Cal and have ascended to previously unseen spots in all the major national polls.
The Gauchos, who last year tied Cal Poly for second place in the Big West standings and joined the Mustangs as a participant in the regional stage of the NCAA postseason, aren’t far behind.
UC Santa Barbara’s win-loss record is the second best 24-game start in program history.
The Gauchos are 14-0 when leading after six innings and are 7-0 in one-run games.
“Our competition has been tougher with other schools,” Cal Poly junior centerfielder Jordan Ellis said. “So, it just hasn’t been developed to be a bigger thing with baseball as much. This year, for sure, it’s going to be tougher than it has in years past.
“They’re supposed to be a team to beat; we’re a team to beat. It’s going to be tough on both sides.”
The lineups sure seem to have a tough task.
Despite UC Santa Barbara leading the Big West and ranking 13th in the country with a team batting average of .307 and leading the nation with 57 stolen bases, Cal Poly has supreme confidence in lefty starter Matt Imhof, a top MLB Draft prospect who comes to the mound tonight with a 6-1 record and 1.05 ERA.
Imhof anchors a staff that has struck out 263 batters in 247 innings, a ratio that also leads the nation.
Integral to the Mustangs’ success on the mound, reliever Taylor Chris is having a breakout season.
Having served as both a fill-in closer when regular Reed Reilly was out with injury and in long relief, Chris is 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA and three saves while striking out 29 in 23 innings.
Chris had mainly been a one-inning set-up man in past seasons, but with an upgraded mental game, he’s become comfortable in any situation.
“I’ve been doing really good at just going pitch-by-pitch where it doesn’t really matter what the situation is,” Chris said. “It’s just a normal hitter. It doesn’t matter if guys are on, guys aren’t on. I’ve done a good job of being able to simplify things and focus on one batter at a time.”
Imhof is opposed by Gauchos staff ace Austin Pettibone, who is making his first Friday night start of the season since returning from injury but is 2-0 with a 1.12 ERA in limited action so far.
“I think it’s going to be a pitching battle,” Ellis said. “We both have good offensive teams where any inning we could just blow up, but pitching on both sides is pretty consistent.”
With a .298 team batting average, Cal Poly is not far behind UC Santa Barbara in that department, and the Mustangs have been prolific on the base paths, outscoring opponents by a combined total of 183-87.
Though this might not qualify as a rivalry in comparison to some of the other heated Blue-Green games around campus, one thing is constant.
“Home field advantage is huge in all the sports for this rivalry,” Chris said. “So, playing them here is going to be a big advantage for us.”