First things first.
Mark Mathias hit his first home run. Casey Bloomquist pitched his first shutout. The Cal Poly baseball team swept Cal State Fullerton for the first time ever.
The No. 3 Mustangs continued to barrel toward a potential first Big West Conference title with a 3-0 win over the four-time defending champion Titans (18-16, 3-6 Big West) on Saturday at a packed Baggett Stadium.
Making up the fifth-largest crowd in Baggett history, some of the 2,614 spectators celebrated with brooms in the stands. Others pondered the chances of the program hosting an NCAA regional for the first time.
There are still 16 games left in the season before any titles or postseason draws come to fruition, but the Mustangs are 29 games over .500 for the first time in program history, and it is certainly a happy Easter in San Luis Obispo.
“It’s great to be able to do things for the first time,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “It just means that you’re getting better as a program, and you have a good team for that particular year. Our players have done such a good job of just coming to play each and every game and right from the first pitch.”
Mathias made sure of that, leading off the bottom of the first with a home run against Cal State Fullerton starter Grahamm Wiest.
The sophomore second baseman is just one in a hearty group of second-year players who are driving the greatest season in Cal Poly baseball history.
Another is Bloomquist, who struck out eight in the three-hit shutout and improved to 9-0 on the season. Bloomquist took to Twitter after the game to thank his fellow sophomores for the run support, Mathias and shortstop Peter Van Gansen, who tripled in a run in the fifth and came around to score on an overthrow.
The Mustangs (34-5, 11-1 Big West) have won 10 straight, 16 of their past 17 and 24 of 26 as they’ve risen in the rankings and entered the national spotlight.
A big key to that success has been Mathias, who began the season hitting seventh in the order before moving up to sixth and finally getting placed in the leadoff spot the second week of conference play.
Mathias has hit safely in each of his 11 games batting leadoff. He’s gotten base hits in 28 of the past 29 games, hitting .449 (48 for 107) during the span and upping his season average to .404.
He leads the team in batting average, hits (53), runs (36), on-base percentage (.465) and slugging (.507).
Even though longtime girlfriend Gisela Emole is quick to update Mathias on his stats, he doesn’t want to hear them.
“The main thing for me is just to stay humble,” Mathias said. “My girlfriend always tells me my average after the game, and I just tell her to keep it to herself because I don’t really like looking at my numbers. I’m just trying to look at my next at-bat and take each at-bat one at a time.”
Mathias’ production is a huge jump for a player who hit .200 in just 40 at-bats in his college debut last season.
He’s been a revelation leading off, a spot coaches weren’t necessarily envisioning for Mathias when they were recruiting him as a shortstop out of Fremont Irvington High. And he teams well in the field with Van Gansen, a two-year starter and defensive star.
“He’s evolved tremendously from last year as an offensive and a defensive player as well as his baseball IQ,” Lee said of Mathias.
“Mark is a real good shortstop at this level. He might be a shortstop at the professional level. When you have two quality shortstops playing in the middle of the diamond, you have a shortstop arm at second base, and that’s important for double-play turns.
“He’s been one of our main contributors in all areas of success.”
Like Mathias, Bloomquist keeps improving, too.
With the Cal Poly bullpen depleted after Friday night’s 13-inning, 4-3 victory over Cal State Fullerton, Bloomquist could not have been better.
He walked just three, needing only 112 pitches and 1 hour, 54 minutes to get through the fastest game in the 13-year history of Baggett.
The Titans loaded the bases against Bloomquist with two outs in the sixth inning, making some wonder which reliever Lee would turn to after stalwarts Taylor Chris and Reed Reilly exhausted themselves the night prior.
In reality, Lee and pitching coach Thomas Eager didn’t think much about it.
Bloomquist got Tanner Pinkston to ground right back to the mound and flipped the ball to Chris Hoo for the force at the plate to get out of the jam.
Then putting any questions about his stamina to rest, Bloomquist retired the next nine batters in order, 10 overall, to end the game with three perfect innings.
“Eager always says, ‘Give me the best that you can for as long as you can,’ ” Bloomquist said. “I did the best I could today, and it just happened to be a shutout.”
Bloomquist lowered his season ERA to a team-leading 1.36. A sinkerball pitcher noted for inducing ground balls, he’s also struck out 53 and walked just 13 in 66 innings.
Staff ace Matt Imhof is receiving plenty of hype and justifiably so with a 1.87 ERA and a
conference-leading 97 strikeouts, but Bloomquist has been just as important to the team’s success.
“I don’t know what it is,” Van Gansen said. “He’s always on for us. He’s maybe our best pitcher right now, and we just feel lots of confidence in him. We know he’s going to bring eight solid innings at least and just help us no matter what.”