Just in time for the latest “biggest series of the year,” the Cal Poly baseball team has rediscovered its confidence.
It’s a wonder how the No. 7 Mustangs lost it. Just a couple weeks ago, they were ranked first in the nation in one major poll, riding a 12-game winning streak.
Then in the span of a week, Cal Poly (39-9, 14-4 Big West Conference) nearly doubled its season-long loss total with a four-game losing streak that threw a slam-dunk shot to host an NCAA regional into doubt.
Part of the problem was that the Mustangs’ lineup seemed to go cold all at once.
“I don’t know if there was anything mechanical,” said Cal Poly junior right fielder Nick Torres. “We weren’t swinging well. Yeah, we weren’t. I think it was more the mental side of things. I think in that sense, the 12-game win streak almost kind of hurt us because we forgot how to lose. We lost, and it was like, ‘We don’t lose,’ and we didn’t really know how to recover from that.
“And then it was like ‘Oh, no. Now what do we do?’ Guys internalized a little bit. I think we were playing kind of scared instead of confident.”
Halting a skid with a three-game winning streak that included a Big West series victory at UC Riverside last week has helped the Mustangs return to a psychological approach that has worked for them all season — and just in time for this weekend’s visit from conference-leading and No. 23 UC Irvine (33-14, 14-1 Big West).
Before the losing streak, Cal Poly players hadn’t allowed their failures to carry over from game to game or even inning to inning. Now that they have gone through rough times, the Mustangs have a better plan to deal with losses as the postseason looms.
“I don’t think losing a game would hurt us at this point,” said Torres, who has a Big West-leading 40 RBI. “We got out of that hole. We know what losing feels like again. We know how to recover from it. We’re playing really confident now again. We have that three-game winning streak going. We like our chances going into the weekend.”
Led by a potent pitching staff, the Anteaters are proving themselves despite some doubts over their schedule strength. Cal Poly will be the highest ranked team UC Irvine has played this season, but the Mustangs also believe the Anteaters will be the toughest task they’ve faced as well.
“This is the biggest series of our entire season,” senior catcher Chris Hoo said. “If we beat them two out of three or even sweep them, we’ll have a really good chance of wining Big West. Even though we’re doing well, we’d like to win Big West and get one of those rings.”
As the season has progressed, Cal Poly has said similar things about many other teams.
The season opened with a sweep of Super Regional team Kansas State. Then came an exorcism of demons at UCLA. A series win over Cal capped a streak of nine games in 13 days. The Blue-Green rivalry against UC Santa Barbara moved to the diamond. Then the Mustangs dethroned Cal State Fullerton in a thrilling duel.
And just like this weekend’s home finale against UC Irvine, all but one series came at Baggett Stadium, where Cal Poly would like to continue playing once the regular season ends.
“We need to finish the season strong to allow us the best chance for an opportunity to host a regional,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “That gives us the best chance of advancing. “We still have seven games left. Right now, I think we’re in a good position, but it all depends on how we finish the season. We have to keep winning.”
Winning is something UC Irvine Friday night starter Andrew Morales has plenty of experience with.
The senior right-hander is 18-0 at the Division I level, and including his two seasons at Rio Hondo Community College, the preseason All-American is 39-1 in his college career.
One of those victories included a then-career-best 10 strikeouts in an 11-1 victory over Cal Poly last season.
Back then, UC Irvine fireballer Andrew Thurman earned all of the MLB Draft buzz and went to the Houston Astros with the first pick in the second round in June while scouts somehow soured on Morales, who went completely undrafted.
“Andrew Morales was by far the best pitcher we faced last year,” Torres said, “because when he came up against us, he was just sharp. All of his pitches were working. He mixed really well against us, and he did what he was supposed to do.
“I’m surprised to see he even came back because he blew me away. He was good last year.”
Brandishing four pitches he can throw for strikes, Morales has gone on to have an even better season this year, twice striking out 12 in a single game and using back-to-back complete-game shutouts to build a 31 2⁄3-inning scoreless streak last month. His 0.91 ERA ranks second in the country.
And he’s not alone. UC Irvine has a 2.42 team ERA, which ranks 16th in the nation. The Anteaters are fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.45) and third in walks per nine innings (2.03). With 21 saves, closer Sam Moore broke a Big West record that had stood for nearly 20 years.
To stand up to UC Irvine’s stable of arms, the Mustangs have to continue to play free of pressure.
“We’ve got to stick to our approach,” Hoo said. “Each and every guy has to stick to our approaches. When we get out of that, that’s when we start struggling as a team. Overall, we can accomplish anything. We’ve done so much when we’ve stuck to our approach. We’ve put up a number of runs against good pitching.”