Zack Zehner’s first game with the San Luis Obispo Blues could have been a carbon copy of his final game with the Cal Poly baseball team.
“Could have” not because the result was any different, but because Zehner has decided he wants another shot at the College World Series.
The seventh-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays said following Wednesday’s 4-3 Blues loss at SLO Stadium that he will spurn the majors in favor of one more year with the Mustangs.
“I felt like going back to school is important and the right thing to do,” said Zehner, who is expected to slot into an everyday outfield spot and replace Nick Torres as the No. 3 hitter in Cal Poly’s batting order. “We have a good team this coming year, and I just think that we have a lot more in the tank.”
Zehner said he reached his decision Monday after going back home to San Diego following the Mustangs’ 10-6 season-ending loss to Pepperdine in the San Luis Obispo Regional championship game June 1.
In the loss to the Waves, the Mustangs rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the score in front of a raucous Baggett Stadium only to see Pepperdine come right back to score the winning run in the top of the ninth.
The same plot played out Wednesday at SLO Stadium, with the Blues erasing a three-run deficit against California Coast League rival Santa Barbara in the identical frame as Cal Poly’s surge.
However, the Foresters’ Colt Atwood pushed a bunt by San Luis Obispo pitcher Max Gibbs to score AJ Balta with two outs in the top of the ninth, and Ryan Helsley struck out the side to end the game.
“We went out and talked about the push (bunt), and Atwood did a great job of executing,” Blues coach Chal Fanning said. “If that goes anywhere else, we get out of it, and who knows what happens.”
Twenty-four hours after San Luis Obispo was held to just five hits and one run in a 4-1 loss at Santa Barbara, the Foresters’ pitchers continued to quiet the Blues bats through seven innings on Wednesday.
Santa Barbara right-hander Jon Duplantier, a sophomore at Rice, struck out nine in six innings, including two straight to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the second.
Zehner started the rally by legging out a grounder toward second with one out to give San Luis Obispo its first base runner of the game. A wild pitch moved him up a base before Erik Lewis walked, and Dillon Dobson mishandled San Luis Obispo High graduate Connor O’Hare’s sharp grounder at shortstop.
But Duplantier froze Austin O’Brien and Niko Pacheco on called third strikes on the outer half of the plate to end the threat.
Second baseman and Tennessee junior Jeff Moberg led off the sixth with a triple to the wall in center field, but Duplantier struck out two more and got Zehner to ground out to shortstop. “It’s frustrating … but that’s why the guys are here to play baseball,” Fanning said. “To put them in these situations and work through it. We’ve just got to execute better.”
Finally in the eighth, the Blues (12-6, 7-5) cashed in.
Pacheco led off the inning with a broken-bat bloop double over the head of Santa Barbara third baseman Bret Boswell and came around to score two batters later when Moberg hit another laser to center — this time for a double.
Jacob Hoyle singled Moberg home and, after Zehner’s fly ball to the outfield was lost in the dark and dropped for a double, Lewis hit an infield single to third to score Hoyle for the tying run.
“We battled all game,” said Zehner, who hit .316 with 32 runs and 16 RBI in first season at Cal Poly after transferring from Santa Barbara City College. “We couldn’t get the big hit when we needed it, but we came through with that three-spot in the eighth.
“We thought we could hold on and get one more, but it just didn’t happen.”
Dolson doubled twice for Central Division-leading Santa Barbara (13-3, 11-3), including an RBI base knock in the first inning off Dakota Hudson, who struck out five in four innings. The Foresters tacked on two more in the seventh off reliever Vance Tatum on a bases-loaded single by Ford Stainback.
“In recent history, a typical Foresters-Blues match-up,” Fanning said. “It’s good baseball, and we just need to do a little better.”