Steven Fischback wanted a start in the Cal Poly baseball team’s last series against UCLA.
But when repeated rain delays transformed the three-day weekend series into a Monday doubleheader, Mustangs coaches opted not to push their senior starter.
Still in his first five starts since missing all of the past two seasons recovering from a torn labrum, Fischback had been experiencing more soreness than his peers.
Cal Poly (8-10) saved him for Minnesota on Friday, and Fischback responded with his sharpest outing in his young comeback.
“For my arm, it didn’t mean that much,” Fischback said of the extended rest, “and I wanted to play against UCLA because they’re ranked. I wanted to get that on my resume, get a win against a ranked team, but it was huge in the fact that I threw two bullpens instead of just one mid-week.”
Idle since March 13, Fischback struck out a season-high nine — the most since sitting down 11 against Alabama in 2008. Catcher Elliot Stewart broke out of a slump with three base hits, and closer Jeff Johnson continued his standout season while securing a 5-1 win over the Gophers at Baggett Stadium.
Fischback worked on an adjustment to his change-up grip during those two bullpen sessions, and relied mainly on that pitch to allow just five hits and one run through seven innings to the Gophers (7-8), a team coming off back-to-back wins over Sacramento State and three straight rainouts.
Fischback was perfect through three innings, and gave up his only run in the sixth. His 89 pitches were a season high, and it was the first time he’s made it to the seventh inning this year.
“It’s a combination of just increasing his stamina and having his arm go through some stress repeatedly, giving enough rest time and not elevating his pitch count,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “A lot of things add to it. We’re hoping he continues to get better and better as the season progresses, and tonight was a good sign.”
Fischback said the idea of him coming out for the eighth was toyed with, but ultimately the team went with Eugene Wright in the eighth and closed with Johnson, who is on an impressive tear.
Johnson struck out two in the ninth to help lower his season ERA to 0.84. The junior right-hander has struck out 18 in 10 2⁄3 innings this season without issuing a walk.
He didn’t qualify for the save after Bobby Crocker scored on an error andJ.J. Thompson’s RBI single in the eighth gave Cal Poly its four-run lead, but the Mustangs have grown accustomed to watching Johnson slam the door on victories.
“I just know with Eugene Wright and Jeff Johnson, the filthiest pitcher ever, we’d be able to get the win if we just handed the ball off to the bullpen,” Fischback said.
“The team has the most confidence in him in the world. Handing him the ball, we expect a 1-2-3 inning. He’s come in with the bases loaded and no out and gotten us out of it.”
Prior to the two-run rally, Stewart was the main source of offense for a team that’s missing it’s starting middle infield and a regular at first base. Mired in a 2-for-22 slump coming in, Stewart got hits in his first three at-bats before recording an out in the eighth, and he drove in and scored a run in the fifth to help break a scoreless tie.
Stewart might have finally made the adjustment to the new composite bats being used in college baseball for the first time this season.
Intended to curb velocity off the metal bat, the composites don’t have the heft of wood bats but do require hitters to be just as precise.
Stewart has tried to revert his swing back to the mechanics that were successful for him while playing in a wood-bat league this past summer.
“I feel like I was just mis-hitting some balls, popping up when I shouldn’t be,” Stewart said. “It’s probably more mental preparation than anything. Coach Lee stresses a lot of the mental game, so I’ve been working on that.
“I’ve never been a real big power guy, so, it’s not like I was planning to hit 25 home runs this year. I’m trying to hit line drives rather than trying to hit one out because I think homeruns are going to be accidents this year.”
Cal Poly had another type of on-field accident when third baseman Evan Busby was struck in the back of the head with a pick-off throw in the eighth.
Lee said Busby will miss today’s game against Minnesota after suffering a concussion and also added that right fielder Mitch Haniger, the team’s No. 3 batter, is likely to sit because of a recurring lower back injury that also caused him to miss time last season.
The team is already without its leading hitter — shortstop Mike Miller — and second baseman Matt Jensen, who are out with wrist and hand injuries, and first baseman Tim Wise, who tweaked his hamstring.
The trio above are not expected back before the start of Big West Conference play next weekend.