After missing Saturday’s victory to witness the birth of his first child, Cal Poly pitching coach Thomas Eager was ready to strategize about Sunday’s pivotal rubber match with nationally ranked UC Santa Barbara when he got to the clubhouse Sunday.
All starting pitcher Casey Bloomquist wanted to do was give Eager a congratulatory hug.
Then Bloomquist saw staff ace Matt Imhof eating a cookie and rattled off a dessert-related Darth Vader pun without missing a beat.
“He’s like, ‘Imhof, you have to come check this out,’ ” Imhof said, “and it’s some stupid joke from Twitter or something like that, and he’s giggling to himself.”
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The stakes were clear. A series loss to the No. 17 Gauchos would cost the No. 5 Mustangs a good chunk of the national respect they’d earned in recent weeks. The bullpen was taxed, and UC Santa Barbara had already collected 15 runs on 26 hits in the first two games.
But in what’s become true Bloomquist fashion, the sophomore stayed upbeat, bared his heart, spewed some corny jokes and pitched the game of his life.
Staying unbeaten this season, Bloomquist (7-0) matched a career-high 10 strikeouts and walked none in 7 2⁄3 shutout innings, and Cal Poly (26-5, 5-1 Big West Conference) remained atop the conference standings with a gripping 1-0 victory over the visiting Gauchos (20-7, 2-4 Big West).
Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said Bloomquist pitched one of the best games Baggett Stadium has seen in the past couple seasons, and a season-high 2,489 spectators, the fourth most in the 14-year history of the stadium, were there to see it.
What they didn’t see was how Bloomquist successfully manages to separate his light-hearted nature and his competitive spirit in the throes of a game as tense as any all season.
“He doesn’t tense up,” Imhof said. “He’s the same guy. He’s loose in the clubhouse before he stretches. He’s loose in the dugout between innings, and then when he goes up on the mound, it’s like a different person kind of takes over. And he kind of zones it in.”
Being able to compartmentalize has helped Bloomquist win the heart of Eager’s wife, Jenna, who claims him as her favorite player.
“That’s why he’s so successful; he’s able to separate” on- and off-field personas,” Eager said. “The hardest thing for him was to find out how to be that competitor on the mound. How to do that type of stuff, and once he did that, he’s unbelievable.”
Thanks also to 1 1⁄3 hitless innings and a save from lefty reliever Taylor Chris, a two-out RBI triple by Jimmy Allen in the fourth was all Cal Poly needed in the end, but the resourceful Gauchos did not go easily.
Manufacturing runs is one reason UC Santa Barbara was 7-0 in one-run games before losing two back-to-back this weekend.
Despite getting just four singles and a double against Bloomquist, UC Santa Barbara proved expert at advancing runners. The Gauchos had a man reach third in the first, fourth and sixth innings.
Each time, Bloomquist got the out he needed to squelch the threat, ending the first with a strikeout and capping the fourth and sixth with groundouts to Mark Mathias at second base.
More so than dominating UC Santa Barbara, Bloomquist kept the Gauchos off-balance with his secondary pitches, a change-up and slider, something that never would have happened last season when coaches limited him to throwing primarily his sinker.
He lowered his ERA this season to 1.25. And though Bloomquist was 6-2 last year, starting the season as a midweek starter before earning a weekend spot, his 2013 ERA rose to 5.02 by the end.
“Casey Bloomquist last year was a one-pitch guy,” Lee said. “We only threw a sinking fastball to one side of the plate. This year, he throws to both sides of the plate. He has a plus slider and a plus change-up with depth. And he’s a completely different pitcher, and on top of that, mentally, he’s become a fierce competitor.”
The key to this season’s improvement is less physical than mental, Bloomquist said.
All he had to do was prove to himself and to coaches he could execute all of his pitches when called upon.
Whether it’s with jokes or pitches, reputations are earned the same way.
“It’s not so much I developed them,” Bloomquist said. “I had them. I fine-tuned them a little bit. It’s just the fact that I have confidence in them.
“You just got to be able to repeat it, show it to them in the offseason and the fall. In intrasquads, I would make certain pitches. They really test you in intrasquads in the fall. Just to be able to repeat stuff like that, that’s really huge.
“You repeat something so much, you just kind of become accustomed to it. It feels good.”