In late innings with the lead, Jeff Johnson has become the name you know.
But with the Cal Poly baseball team’s closer still recovering from throwing 6 2⁄3 combined innings in last week’s series against UC Santa Barbara — and with a four-game stretch against two top-15 teams looming — Mustangs head coach Larry Lee turned elsewhere to finish off Cal State Northridge.
Striking out six straight batters to polish off a three-game Big West Conference sweep of the Matadors on Sunday, sophomore right-hander Joey Wagman got his first save of the season, and Cal Poly (15-16, 6-3 Big West) heads into showcase games with Fresno State and conference-leading Cal State Fullerton playing its best at just the right time.
Including the sweep over Cal State Northridge (17-19, 0-6 Big West) and a nonconference victory over Santa Clara on Tuesday, the Mustangs are averaging 13 hits and nearly seven runs in the past four games, batting .364 as a team and sporting an ERA of 1.00 — all with Johnson unavailable since throwing 85 pitches in a 5-4 13-inning loss to the Gauchos last Sunday.
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“He threw too many pitches that Sunday in Santa Barbara,” Lee said, “so, we’ll get him ready for the Fullerton series, but Wagman was really good. The curveball was really good. It elevated his fastball, got ahead of half of his hitters. It was exactly what we needed.”
Using a sharp curveball, a change-up he could throw for strikes and a swing-and-miss fastball, Wagman came on in relief of freshman starter Chase Johnson with a runner on second and two out in the sixth.
And with the Mustangs clinging to a 3-2 lead, Wagman struck out eight of the 10 outs he recorded over the final 3 1⁄3 innings.
Primarily finding success with his sinking fastball, Chase Johnson (1-2, 3.23 ERA) only struck out one in the longest start of his young career, but he allowed only four hits and picked up his first collegiate victory.
With Jeff Johnson, Cal Poly’s best strikeout-per-nine-innings threat (12.9), on the shelf, Mustangs pitchers have combined to strike out 36 batters in the past 36 innings.
Sporting a season ERA of only 3.55, pitching has been the best constant in an inconsistent year at the plate. Cal Poly entered the week 12th in the country averaging 8.7 strikeouts per game this season.
“We know that every game is going to be competitive,” said Wagman (2-2, 4.08 ERA). “It’s fun for us to come out and say, ‘let’s keep them scoreless.’
“When we lose, we gotta pitch better. We put it upon ourselves. We’re going to turn this game. We’re going to be the ones to win it.”
But the offense also seems to be finding a groove.
Prior to Friday’s 7-2 victory, Cal Poly had registered double digits in hits only twice in the previous 14 games. Now, the Mustangs are on a four-game streak of 10 or more.
“All year, our pitchers have given us a chance to compete and have stuck with us,” said junior centerfielder Bobby Crocker, who was 3 for 5 with two runs and an RBI double that made it 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth. “Now, things are finally clicking and falling into place. We’re really finally meshing like we should have been this whole year.”
Said Lee: “We’re getting to our point with our approaches where we have a better plan at the plate, better swing mechanics. Especially, come this weekend, we’re going to face as good of a staff as there is in the country.”
Cal Poly will also get some reinforcements for Tuesday’s game against Fresno State (25-5), which enters the game ranked 13th in the country by Baseball America and 14th in NCAA Division I RPI.
Junior second baseman Matt Jensen, who has been out since March 11 with a hand injury, is expected to return to the starting lineup. So is freshman first baseman Tim Wise (.313), who has battled a hamstring injury for the past month.
The more meaningful test comes in a three-game series against the Titans, which starts Thursday. Cal State Fullerton (27-9, 8-1 Big West) is ranked eighth by Baseball America and stands at No. 11 in RPI.
Headlined by starters Noe Ramirez, Dylan Floro and closer Nick Ramirez, the Titans’ staff ERA of 2.49 ranks 13th in the country.
Cal State Northridge did not feature the same kind of pitching attack, but reliever Jacob Petersen combined to put up three perfect innings in two appearances.
The former Mission Prep and Morro Bay High standout came into the series with an 8.20 ERA but did not allow a hit or walk while striking out two in his work against the Mustangs.
“The innings went really well,” said Petersen, a sophomore, “and I was glad I could do it in front of some friends. I was a little nervous coming out here, seeing as this is my hometown and everything, but you’ve got to learn to control that and settle down and dial in.”