Chris Hoo hit one to remember Saturday night.
What helped him was remembering what happened Friday.
A day after striking out to end the game, Cal Poly’s senior catcher hit a game-winning RBI single — the Mustangs’ first walk-off hit of the season — to seal an 8-7 victory and even a crucial Big West Conference series with No. 17 UC Santa Barbara on Saturday at Baggett Stadium.
Facing Gauchos closer Dillon Tate in a tense moment for the second night in row, Hoo realized that Tate started the at-bat the same way each night, with a slider for a ball.
On Friday, Hoo took the next pitch and ended up whiffing in the end. Saturday, he jumped all over a second-pitch fastball, sending it straight up the middle and driving in pinch runner Brett Barbier from second.
“I felt like I knew the pitches he was going to throw,” Hoo said, “and I just geared up for the fastball.”
Hoo only added to his reputation as a clutch hitter for the No. 5 Mustangs (25-5, 4-1 Big West).
Though there was only one out when he brought home Barbier, Hoo is tied with Nick Torres for the team lead with 13 two-out RBI this season. Hoo’s also hitting .429 with runners in scoring position and is tied for second with Brian Mundell with 26 total RBI.
Torres leads the team with 29 RBI, but since Hoo hits at the bottom of the lineup, he’s had fewer chances than the No. 3 hitter.
Hoo has racked up his RBI total in 23 less at-bats than Torres.
“He’s by far our most clutch hitter,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “When he drives in runs, they’re meaningful. He’s hitting in the nine hole, and he’s the guy you want at the plate when the game is on the line. That says a lot about him.”
It also says a lot that Hoo batted just .194 last season. Known mostly for his defense behind the plate, Hoo lost the starting role toward the end of the year as Elliot Stewart provided a steadier performance with the bat.
This season, Hoo has changed his approach, and it’s definitely paid off. He’s batting .304 and still providing sterling defense.
He threw out UC Santa Barbara’s Joey Epperson in the eighth inning to halt a Gauchos attempt to rally for the go-ahead run. It was the first time Epperson had been thrown out in 12 steal attempts this season.
“All I’m doing up to bat is I want to help my team win, and whatever it is, I just want to be in that situation all the time. Mentally, I’m prepared for that, and that’s what I want to do.”
Cal Poly closer Reed Reilly earned the win pitching three scoreless innings of relief. Though Reilly walked four, he allowed just one hit and struck out three, including pinch-hitter Billy Frederick with runners on first and second to end the top of the ninth.
Lee put the outcome in Reilly’s hands with plenty of game left, and the move paid off.
The Mustangs needed the win to salvage the series with the Gauchos (20-6, 2-3 Big West), who took Friday’s game 8-6.
Reilly “is our best guy. He’s done it for three years. It’s his game to win or lose,” Lee said. “We’re very thin in the bullpen. So, it’s a good thing we won it in the ninth because I would have sent him back out in the 10th.”
Thanks to Hoo’s hit, his first in four at-bats on the night, Reilly didn’t have to.
Cal Poly also got solid contributions Jordan Ellis and Mark Mathias, who was moved to the leadoff spot for the first time this season.
Mathias responded by going 2 for 4 with an RBI double as Cal Poly built a 5-0 lead by the second inning. Ellis was 2 for 4 with a double and two RBI. Mundell was 2 for 3 with an RBI and two walks.
Tim Wise, who moved out of the leadoff spot and into Mathias’ vacated sixth slot, bucked an 0-7 start to the series to hit a go-ahead two-run single in the that gave the Mustangs a 7-6 lead in the sixth.
Despite the early deficit, UC Santa Barbara chased Cal Poly starter Justin Calomeni with a six-run rally in the fourth inning.
Tate had been nearly automatic for the Gauchos, racking up seven saves in 11 appearances. Since Barbier represented an inherited run, Tate keeps his flawless 0.00 ERA intact, but the Gauchos lost their first one-run loss of the season after starting the year 7-0.
The Mustangs send unbeaten Casey Bloomquist (6-0, 1.48 ERA) to the mound to today’s deciding game with plenty at stake.
A loss for Cal Poly would halt the Mustangs’ meteoric rise up the national rankings. A loss for UC Santa Barbara puts the Gauchos in a precarious spot in the conference standings.
“This is a big series for us,” Hoo said. “We’ve got to win this. We’ve got to come out and win” today.