Steven Fischback’s rooting section has only gotten bigger, and his slider has only gotten better.
The Cal Poly senior right-hander used a sharp breaking ball — one Mustangs head coach Larry Lee called Fischback’s best slider yet — to rack up a career-high 13 strikeouts in a complete-game 4-2 victory over UC Davis on Saturday at Baggett Stadium.
After missing all of the past two seasons recovering from a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, Fischback had a group of friends chanting “Fisch is back!” during his first home start this season.
The group grew to comprise an entire bleacher section in his final home start, and it serenaded him with new works all night as Fischback ferociously flung his slider unlike he has any time since his injury.
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“That’s what I went with a lot with two strikes,” Fischback said. “They chased a few and took a few. It was working.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable throwing it hard, with the same intent as my fastball. So, the hope is that the hitter sees something hard coming at them, and the last minute it darts away from a righty and down.”
Unbeaten in his past five starts (4-0) for the Mustangs (23-22, 12-8 Big West Conference), Fischback walked only one and gave up six hits to the Aggies (16-19, 8-9 Big West) in 119 pitches.
A hard-throwing, fast-rising prospect pre-injury, Fischback hasn’t had the same velocity. Pitching coach Jason Kelly estimates his fastball is between 86 and 88 mph.
But his progression this season — his ability to last deeper into games and use a wider variety of pitches — is a sign that Fischback is finally comfortable with the health of his arm.
He’s had his first victory since 2008, first complete game since 2008 and most strikeouts since 2008. It might be time to start wondering if he’s a better pitcher than he was in 2008.
“It’s been more fulfilling,” said Fischback, who is 2-0 with two complete-game victories in his past two starts against UC Davis, the earlier one coming in 2008. “The numbers are better. I don’t know how much that’s correlated to the bats. Home runs are way down, ERAs are down across the board.
“I wouldn’t say my stuff’s there, but I’ve learned a little bit about how to compete, how to trust my stuff, how to get out of jams and to believe I can get out of jams.”
Fischback’s biggest jam came in the ninth inning. After allowing a run to cut Cal Poly’s lead to two runs, Mustangs head coach Larry Lee had closer Jeff Johnson “throwing rockets” in the bullpen.
But with the potential tying run at the plate in pinch-hitter Kevin Grove, Lee stuck with Fischback, who got the strikeout looking to end the game.
It would have been Johnson’s first save opportunity in more than a month while he’s sat out with elbow tendinitis, but Lee said his faith in Fischback had more to do with his decision than any apprehension about going back to Johnson in a big spot.
“Fisch was still real good at the end of the ballgame,” Lee said. “He was great all game. This might have been his best outing he’s had since he’s been here, and you like to reward somebody like that, especially Steve, who’s gone through so much.”
Bobby Crocker, Mitch Haniger and Jimmy Allen each went 2 for 3 for Cal Poly, which played its shortest (1 hour, 58 minutes) and coldest (58 degrees) game of the season.
Crocker hit a home run to left center, his third of the season, to tie the score at 1 in the bottom of the first.
The junior centerfielder also had back-to-back leaping grabs— one at the wall, another at the warning track — to help keep UC Davis off the scoreboard in the third inning.
Crocker was very clear about his inspiration on Saturdays. It’s enough to get the feeling that if they didn’t have to be on the field, the Mustangs would be chanting right along in the bleachers with Fischback’s rooting section.
“He plays as hard as he can whenever he’s out there,” Crocker said. “That’s all you can ask. It’s a great vibe when he’s out on the mound. “Fisch just set the tone. So, it makes you want to play behind him. You want to play your heart out for him. He’s doing the same thing on the mound.”
Cal Poly is one win away from earning its third sweep of the season.
The Mustangs are still mathematically alive for the Big West’s automatic NCAA postseason berth.
They trail conference-leading Cal State Fullerton by four games with four games to play. UC Irvine (12-5 Big West) is in second place and has seven more conference games left.
“Not to look past a game, but we kind of need to win every game,” Fischback said. “That’s our motto.”