UCLA’s undefeated march to the program’s first College World Series championship was one of 2013’s amazing stories.
The Bruins finished third in the Pac-12, but once the postseason started, they couldn’t lose and delivered the conference its NCAA-leading 17th CWS title.
In the 65-year history of the NCAA baseball championship, the Southeastern Conference ranks second with just nine.
As far as the rest of the country is concerned, Cal Poly was just a footnote — one of two programs to earn its first ever regional victory and one of the early speed bumps in UCLA’s 10-0 run to the title.
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But to those in San Luis Obispo, and to the Mustangs players specifically, the offseason was spent pondering what might have been if not for a fly ball lost in the setting sun at Jackie Robinson Stadium in the second round of the Los Angeles Regional.
Had Mustangs outfielder Nick Torres found it in time to make the catch on the fly, Cal Poly would have gone to the bottom of the sixth inning with a 4-0 lead on the eventual champs and closer Reed Reilly ready to come out for the seventh.
As it was, the ball landed for a bases-clearing triple, the Bruins tied the score that frame and won it with two runs in the seventh of a 6-4 victory.
Not only did the Mustangs get their first regional victory in the program’s second Division I postseason appearance the prior day, they felt as if they were one stroke of bad luck away from making a much bigger splash.
And it has motivated them tremendously heading into this season, which starts with today’s 1 p.m. alumni game at Baggett Stadium and a season-opening homestand against Kansas State next weekend.
“I was pretty bitter, especially knowing we were the better team,” Torres, back for his junior season, said Friday. “It was definitely hard to swallow, but it’s only going to help us this year.
“We know that we can make it. We know that we could have been the best team in the country last year and that we’re even better this year.”
Lefty starter Matt Imhof walked away from the postseason and straight into a stint with USA baseball, where he shined as a reliever.
But before he left for the national team tryout, Imhof caught UCLA’s CWS-opening win over LSU and the title-clinching victory over former Mission Prep and Cuesta College standout Alex Detz and Mississippi State.
Imhof was on the mound when Torres lost the ball in the air, and that made the rest of the postseason a frustrating experience, one he soon put it in perspective.
“What UCLA did the rest of the way after we got eliminated is actually a little confidence boost for me,” Imhof said. “The national champions, we had them beat if not for a fluke fly ball, and they ended up going out and beating all the teams and going undefeated throughout playoffs.
We were the closest team to knocking them off. In my mind, they should know they got lucky against us to get that win.
“Now, our expectation is not to get to regionals; it’s to host a regional, host a super, go to Omaha and win it all.”
Whether the Mustangs can do all of that might hinge on the success of two freshman starting pitchers.
Imhof, who went 7-3 with a 2.74 ERA as a sophomore last season, will be the Friday night starter, and sophomore Casey Bloomquist (6-2, 5.02 ERA) will start on Sundays.
Saturdays and Tuesdays will initially be handled by Slater Lee and Justin Calomeni.
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee compared both the mental makeup and wide repertoire of Slater Lee, 11-2 with a 1.34 ERA and five shutouts at Carlsbad High, to last year’s ace Joey Wagman, whose guile and mix of pitches made his mid-80s fastball velocity more than adequate.
Calomeni is an all-state honoree from San Jose Bellarmine Prep who went 8-1 with a 1.07 ERA last season.
“Both are capable of being successful,” Lee said. “We just need to speed up the developmental process. We’re asking them as freshmen not to pitch like freshmen, to step up their game. It’s a lot to ask of them, but that’s what we’re doing.”
Torres, who hit .333 with eight home runs and a team-high 49 RBI last season, leads an experienced lineup.
Santa Barbara City transfer outfielder Zach Zehner could be the only newcomer to start on opening day.
Reilly and third baseman Jimmy Allen return after each turned down opportunities to sign professionally after being drafted last summer.
Allen will start at third next to sophomore Peter Van Gansen at shortstop. Sophomores Mark Mathias or John Shuknecht, who could also play first, will replace Denver Chavez at second, and senior Tim Wise will start at first or platoon with Zehner in left.
Jordan Ellis, a .323 hitter, will start in center.
Sophomore Brian Mundell, whose 11 home runs set a Division I freshman program record last season, is about one-third of the way through his throwing rehab after offseason Tommy John surgery, but is slotted as the designated hitter.
Imhof said his time pitching alongside top prospects with Team USA instilled a belief that Cal Poly is as good or better than the traditional power programs.
A three-game nonconference series at UCLA is looming in the second weekend of the season (Feb. 21-23), which is fitting considering how last year’s regional experience seems to have stuck.
“It’s something you can think about any time you don’t want to put in any extra work,” Imhof said. “You kind of remember the feeling of when the game ended, and how we lost that game just motivates you for the next year.”