Brian Mundell leads the Big West Conference in three hitting categories.
For Cal Poly baseball’s sophomore designated hitter to take his game to another level, he might have to relinquish his hold on one.
And with four-time defending conference champion Cal State Fullerton’s proficient pitching staff coming to Baggett Stadium for a three-game series against the No. 3 Mustangs starting tonight, the Titans could give him that chance.
Mundell is tied with teammate Peter Van Gansen for the Big West lead with 28 walks. Cal State Fullerton (18-13, 3-3 Big West) isn’t likely to up that total much. The Titans’ three announced starters, beginning with Justin Garza tonight at 6, have combined to walk just 13 hitters in more than 154 innings this season.
While he might not walk, Mundell should get chances to add to his conference-leading RBI (34) and sacrifice fly (10) totals.
“They’re really big strike throwers,” said Mundell, whose 11-game hitting streak is the longest current run on the team. “It’s nice to know facing a guy like that knowing that he does throw strikes and you’re actually going to get a pitch to hit sometimes.”
An imposing slugger, some pitchers have chosen to pitch around Mundell. But that’s not the complete story on his walk totals.
Mundell has also been selective this year, sometimes watching fastballs go for strikes early in counts before working the count for a free pass.
Settling for walks has somewhat limited Mundell’s production, which is still very impressive.
Mundell is hitting .419 in nine Big West games and .320 overall. His four home runs are tied with Nick Torres for the team lead, and his 10 doubles are two behind Chris Hoo for the team high.
Mundell is also approaching national-record territory in sacrifice flies. He needs four more to tie the NCAA Division I record set by South Florida’s Chris Heintz in 1996. He needs three more to tie Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee, who once held the national record, hitting 13 for Pepperdine in 1982.
Lee said Mundell can perform even better, and part of the plan to do so is to replace some of those walks with hits.
“I had a conversation with coach Lee,” Mundell said, “about being more aggressive, not taking those good pitches early in the count and drawing a walk but swinging the bat and trying to hit the ball hard and drive some more runs in instead of just getting on first base.”
Mundell said the key is finding balance between selectivity and aggressiveness, a balance shown in his performance in a 9-1 victory over CSU Bakersfield on Tuesday. Mundell was 1 for 1 with a two-run single, two sacrifice flies and a walk.
In last weekend’s series sweep at Hawaii, he was 5 for 13 with a home run and three RBI.
Things don’t figure to come as easily against the Titans as Cal Poly (31-5, 8-1 Big West) looks to match its largest winning streak of the season at eight games.
Garza makes his first start since missing more than a month recovering from a shoulder injury. In five appearances this season, Garza is 2-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He’s struck out 26 and walked just four in 27 1⁄3 innings.
Friday starter Thomas Eshelman is even stingier, boasting a 6-1 record, 2.08 ERA, 52 strikeouts and just two walks in 6 91⁄3 innings.
On Saturday, Graham Wiest is just 2-3 in eight starts, but that’s with a 1.72 ERA, 47 strikeouts and seven walks in 57 2⁄3 innings.
Though a middling record has helped them fall out of Baseball America’s poll as well as most others, Cal State Fullerton is one of the most formidable teams left on Cal Poly’s schedule.
“They’re as good as anybody,” Lee said. “It’s as good of a pitching staff as there is in the country. Their starting pitchers have great numbers, have low hits to innings pitched, high strikeouts. They don’t walk anybody. So, we’ll have our hands full with that side of the game.
“They’re still as good as anybody in the country. They’re still the team that the road to the championship goes through.”
Cal Poly is expecting a capacity crowd for the series and brought in extra seats in the form of portable bleachers this week to help accommodate spectators.
Two sections of bleachers with 369 seats apiece were installed for the series and are expected to remain throughout the rest of the regular season and any postseason games hosted at Baggett Stadium, raising the seating capacity to 2,472.
Of course, with standing room available, Cal Poly can pack many more in.
The Baggett attendance record is 3,284, set against the Titans in 2005. That series also marks the attendance record for a three-game series (8,585) for the facility, which opened in 2001.
In that 2005 season, Cal State Fullerton was defending a College World Series championship and ranked first in the nation.
This time, Cal Poly has the high ranking, and the Mustangs are hoping a new record attendance figure witnesses a changing of the guard.
“They’ve always been the top dog pretty much,” Cal Poly third baseman Jimmy Allen said, “and now it’s our opportunity to take them down, and we have the talent to do it. I know that it’ll be a good three-game series and a good challenge for us.”