If Cal Poly had to pick a poster boy for its recent rise to the top echelon of college baseball programs, lefty pitcher Matt Imhof might be it.
The junior is being projected as a first-round pick in June’s MLB Draft. He’s already set the Mustangs’ single-game Division I program record for strikeouts, and he had his first career shutout in Friday night’s 8-0 Big West Conference-opening victory over UC Davis.
Imhof’s rapid ascent correlates directly with that of Cal Poly, which entered the week ranked No. 5 by Baseball America and second in ESPN.com’s power rankings. This is hands down the most hype Cal Poly baseball has ever received.
But all the success hasn’t changed Imhof.
“Not at all,” sophomore second baseman Mark Mathias said. “He’s the same guy I’ve known since I was 8. We played tournament ball together, and he’s never changed.
“He’s just a really humble guy.”
Imhof struck out 13, two off his program record, and walked none in a four-hit shutout of the Aggies (12-10, 0-1 Big West), and Mathias batted 2 for 3 with a run and an RBI to extend his career-long hitting streak to 15 games as the Mustangs (21-4, 1-0 Big West) erupted for seven runs in the first inning.
A 13-run second inning in a comeback victory over Cal that helped seal a 3-1 series victory over the Golden Bears on Monday helped Cal Poly convert even more believers, and with Imhof taking center stage Friday, all the buzz centered around his value as a top prospect.
Going into the second game of a three-game series with an adjusted first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m. today, the Mustangs haven’t shied away from the attention.
“We embrace it as a team,” Imhof said. “We get hype now, but we embrace it. We love the fact that we’re the highest-ranked team in the Big West. We want that. We want to play in those big games that matter the most. We don’t 100 percent buy into it as in going on the field and disrespecting the game, but we love the press.”
Though Imhof leveraged a dominant fastball to go with an effective slider and change-up, he had plenty of support against visiting UC Davis at Baggett Stadium.
In the bottom of the first inning alone, third baseman Jimmy Allen had a two-run single, Mathias had an RBI single, catcher Chris Hoo had an RBI single, left fielder Tim Wise drove in a run with a fielder’s choice and Jordan Ellis had an RBI double against Aggies starter Harry Stanwyk.
Ryan Drobny also helped out, scooping several balls on a bounce at first base, and Allen played textbook defense at third to limit the Aggies’ bunt game.
The help allowed Imhof to retire the first nine batters of the game and complete seven of his nine innings in perfect fashion.
Only one UC Davis runner advanced to third as Imhof lowered his season ERA to 1.05.
In 51 2⁄3 innings, Imhof has struck out 77, walked just 16 and batters are hitting just .161 against him.
“He’s very team-first,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said, “and it’s great to have your best guy on the mound being such a team guy. What he cares about is winning baseball games.”
Said Imhof: “When I have three pitches, I feel like I’m pretty tough to beat, and the defense picked me up huge today. Drobs over at first base, unbelievable plays all game long. Jimmy on the bunts. It was just a really good team win today.”
In his first season as a regular player, Mathias is hitting .360. Usually batting in the sixth or seventh spot, he’s hit .451 (23 for 51) during his hitting streak.
It’s the kind of hitting expected from established run producers like Torres, Allen, Ellis and Brian Mundell, but Mathias hit just .200 in 40 at-bats last season as he transitioned from Irvington High, the rival to Imhof’s Mission San Jose.
“The transition Mark’s made from his freshman year to this year is unbelievable,” Imhof said. “He’s working out harder, his body’s in better shape and just understanding the game a little bit better. He just always seems to get the big hits with ice through his veins.”
And perhaps one of the biggest keys to the success this season: Mathias hasn’t been alone in his contributions in the bottom half of the lineup.
Catcher Chris Hoo has been clutch, too. The senior has 18 RBI, which ranks fifth on the team, and though he is hitting just .260, Hoo is .343 with runners in scoring position and second on the team with eight doubles.
Although sophomore shortstop Peter Van Gansen is hitting just .257, he walked three times with a run and an RBI.
Lee, healthy enough to be back on the field coaching third base after injuring his calf Sunday, called Van Gansen and Mathias as good as any double-play combination in college baseball.
“Basically, the key thing for me is just confidence,” Mathias said. “I’ve been getting more comfortable now that I’ve gotten more at-bats. Last year, I wasn’t really that comfortable. I was getting used to Division I baseball.”