Larry Lee stopped letting the sting of postseason rejection fester years ago.
The Cal Poly baseball head coach has seen his bubble burst enough times to learn not to rely on the kindness of the NCAA selection committee come regional time.
After being passed over yet again Monday, Lee has moved on to another emotional stage.
“You come to expect it, which is even worse,” Lee said. “Then you’re not going to get the nod, and we never will.”
It’s become clear that the program must leave no doubt as to its qualifications. This season, there was one big hole in Cal Poly’s resume.
The Mustangs, all alone in second place in the Big West Conference standings and one game out of first, were not one of the 64 teams included when the bracket was announced Monday, owners of an unflattering RPI ranking.
Their 36-20 overall record was identical to the mark that earned a 2005 snub, which has only gotten more implausible since then. But an RPI ranking in the mid-60s this season was enough write off Cal Poly, which was one of 12 teams being considered for the last at-large spot but not one of the final five, according to a teleconference with selection committee chairman Kyle Kandaller.
“What kept us out was just the RPI,” Lee said. “That’s the bottom line, and it’s just an easy way to compare teams across the country, but we did more than enough to deserve a regional berth.”
Junior outfielder Mitch Haniger hit .346 and led the Big West with 13 home runs and 64 RBI in a Player of the Year-caliber season. Senior shortstop Mike Miller hit .354 with a team-leading 87 hits and 56 runs.
Senior pitcher Kyle Anderson broke out for 10 wins, and sophomore outfielder David Armendariz capped his year with back-to-back conference player of the week accolades, hitting 8-for-13 with eight RBI and three doubles and raising his average to .312 in a three-game sweep of UC Riverside this past weekend.
“We’re a real good team and played extremely well toward the end of the season to close it out,” said Lee, who guided the Mustangs to a seven-game winning streak to end the season. The Mustangs also won 14 of the last 17.
“Outside of the Pac-12, we’re as good as any team in the four other conferences in the western United States. We’re probably the seventh or eighth best team out here on the west.”
There are fewer teams and more parity on the West Coast, elements Lee said hurt the region when it comes to RPI rankings.
West Coast Conference runner-up Gonzaga was left out with a 34-22 record, and Great West Conference Champion Utah Valley was snubbed at 47-12. Neither had an RPI better than 45 going into the final week of the season.
It doesn’t particularly make sense when considering that three of the past nine College World Series champions have come from western mid-major conferences, but the truth is that those teams have a smaller margin for error, and Cal Poly’s season, while successful, was not safely within the margin expected for a regional berth.
Outright conference champion Cal State Fullerton, headed to the Eugene Regional, was the lone team included from the Big West, which saw it’s 25-year run as a multi-bid conference halted.
The Southeastern Conference led all conferences with eight teams. The Atlantic Coast Conference had seven. The Pac-12 had five and the Big 12 and Conference USA each had four.
The last time the Big West sent only one team to the regional round was in 1986, when UC Santa Barbara won the conference championship. Since, the Big West has had as many as four, albeit not as frequently as power conferences.
“It’s a a big slap in the face to only get one team,” Lee said, “and it’s been a big slap in the face of the Big West not to get three or four teams over the course of the last decade.”
Through 10 seasons at Cal Poly, Lee made his only trip to a regional in 2009, when the Mustangs were eliminated with an 0-2 record in Tempe, Ariz.
The biggest contributor to Cal Poly’s low RPI ranking were two losses each to Minnesota (134), UC Davis (170), Cal State Northridge (162) and Santa Clara (178), teams with final RPIs well over 100.
That said, the Mustangs ended up being close to winning their first outright Big West title, and very likely could have with just one more scoreless inning.
Cal Poly led Cal State Fullerton 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning of the rubber match of a three-game series with the Titans in April. Blowing the save, the Mustangs went on to fall 5-4 in 10 innings and finished one game back in the standings.
They also lost extra-inning Big West games to Cal State Northridge and UC Davis. Reversing those two results or holding on to beat Cal State Fullerton would have given Cal Poly the Big West’s automatic berth.
As it is, the Mustangs are just out of luck.
“It’s one of the major reasons that you coach is to get your program to a point where you can be a perennial regional team and get yourself a chance to get to a World Series, and when the odds are against you, it’s frustrating,” Lee said.“So I’ve been numb to the whole process the last few years. It’s just, play hard, play to the best of your ability, respect the game, and if it’s good enough, that’s great. If not, we’ll all be disappointed, but the decision’s out of our hands, so there’s no use even worrying about it.”