Danny Zandona brought some much needed relief to Cal Poly’s starting rotation.
And the junior from Santa Barbara could change the complexion of the Mustangs’ postseason baseball hopes if he keeps it up.
Zandona pitched five scoreless innings of one-hit ball, and No. 7 Cal Poly handed Pepperdine a 5-1 midweek loss Tuesday in the Mustangs’ triumphant return to Baggett Stadium, where they improved to 25-2 at home.
“From the beginning, I just had them off balance,” Zandona said. “There was that one bloop double, but other than that, kind of smooth sailing.”
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee has never used Zandona as a regular in the starting rotation. The right-hander has made just three starts in three seasons.
But with Lee looking to find more starting pitching depth in case the Mustangs (39-9) have to take the long route in a regional or the College World Series, Zandona might have just earned a spot with a dominant showing against the Waves (32-13), who pounded Cal Poly pitching 11-4 in Malibu a week ago.
“It’s a big possibility he would be a 3 or 4 starter,” Lee said. “He brings three pitches to the game and, now, his ability to get left and right-handed hitters out.
“It’s great to see that this late in the season and kind of give you a glimpse of what might happen in postseason play. That was good. I feel a lot better about the depth or our starting rotation now watching that.”
Sophomores provided most of the offensive firepower.
Designated hitter Brian Mundell was 2 for 3 with a triple, a run and three RBI. Second baseman Mark Mathias was 2 for 3 with a walk and scored twice. First baseman John Schuknecht was 2 for 3 with two runs.
Junior centerfielder Jordan Ellis added an RBI double, and Mundell pushed his Big West Conference-leading sacrifice fly total to 11, two shy of Lee’s former NCAA record of 13, which he hit while playing for Pepperdine in 1982.
Mundell has known for a while he’s been chasing Lee but isn’t stressing over it.
“As long as we get RBIs, that’s all that really matters to me,” Mundell said. “It would be nice to pass coach for a little bragging rights for next year, but as long as we get RBIs, that’s all I really care about.”
For now, all Cal Poly needs is wins. The Mustangs went on the road and hit a slump after ascending to the top of one national poll and have fallen each of the past two weeks but have now won three in a row heading into this weekend’s Big West series with conference-leading UC Irvine in the regular-season home finale.
If the Mustangs can win the series against the Anteaters, they’d feel much better about their changes to host an NCAA Regional and put the new bleacher additions at Baggett to good use.
Being back at home is a comfort for the Mustangs, and they want to stay in San Luis Obispo as much as possible.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Mundell said about being back at Baggett, “just how well we’ve played here the whole year at home.
“We had a lot of hype being the one team in the nation in one of the polls, and it’s hard to play like that because you shift your momentum from ‘proving yourself’ to one of ‘you have proven yourself.’ Now that we are back down, we are hunting again trying to get back up to the top.”
They may have a better chance of doing that with Zandona fitting into a starting role.
Lee believed he was a better fit in the bullpen, and that idea was reinforced somewhat after Zandona’s first start of the season.
He threw six innings, allowing just one run on hits and no walks while striking out six in a victory over Northern Illinois on March 12.
Zandona made two more relief appearances, but soon suffered tightness in his pitching arm and ended up on the shelf for nearly a month afterward.
“He had the one start where I don’t think he was ready for the amount of pitches he threw,” Lee said. “We gave him the start, and he didn’t recover too well from that. So, we had to kind of back off and build up his stamina again. So, I think he’s at a good place right now, and adding Danny into the equation really helps.”
Zandona showed he could handle an extended outing in 4 2/3 innings of relief this past Friday. In a 7-3 loss at UC Riverside, he allowed two runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings. Two days later, Lee told Zandona he would start Tuesday.
Armed with a fastball, change-up and slider that he can mix to both sides of the plate against both right- and left-handed hitters, Zandona had his change-up working better than it had all season in the victory against Pepperdine.
He was on a pitch count of 60 and only went over by three to get out of the fifth, otherwise he felt good enough to go deeper.
He’s still expected to be ready for UC Irvine this weekend, but Zandona could also pitch next Tuesday at St. Mary’s, the final midweek game before Cal Poly wraps up the regular season at Cal State Northridge.
“If that’s what the coaches want and that’s what they need,” Zandona said, “I’m willing to do whatever.”