It hardly seems to matter whether Matt Imhof has his best stuff or his worst.
The Cal Poly junior pitcher just baffles batters, and after a shaky start to Friday’s night’s 4-2 victory over Sacramento State, Imhof was as stifling as ever in the biggest game in Baggett Stadium history.
He left with a standing ovation in the first Mustangs-hosted NCAA Regional on Friday, and after closer Reed Reilly helped slam the door with 11⁄3 innings of scoreless relief, it was almost as if the season-high 2,922 in the stands forgot all about Imhof’s back-to-back walks to open the game.
He finished with five walks, but the 6-foot-5 left-hander quickly turned things around, and Cal Poly (46-10) is one step closer to advancing to the program’s first Super Regional.
“From the three years I’ve been here, I’ve learned to turn the bad ones into good ones,” Imhof said. “When you’re not feeling good early on in the game, I’ve made the adjustments to get myself back in line. Maybe my stuff won’t be there, but I’m able to make the adjustments. If I’m having control issues, I keep working until I get it done.”
Winning his 10th game of the season, Imhof (10-4, 2.45 ERA) finished with five walks. He labored through the first inning, and the Hornets’ scouting report told them he’d had some control issues down the stretch of the regular season.
But throwing a fastball at 90 mph and a slider he called the sharpest of the season, Imhof took a one-hitter into the eighth inning before another walk and two hits helped get Sacramento State on the board.
The Hornets (39-23), making their program’s first regional appearance, were overwhelmed for most of the game.
“Imhof was just effectively wild tonight,” Sacramento State head coach Reggie Christiansen said. “He was in and out of the strike zone.
He made it difficult on our guys.
“His stuff is electric. … In terms of what we thought, he’s every bit as good as what we thought.”
Said Hornets slugger and Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year Rhys Hoskins: “Imhof’s just straight power. He’s probably the hardest thrower we’ve seen this year. It took a couple innings to get used to it.”
Imhof was charged with two runs, one earned, on three hits while striking out four. Despite throwing 21 pitches in the first inning, he needed just 101 to get through 72⁄3.
“Once I kind of got out of the first couple innings,” Imhof said, “I really just felt good. Everything out of my hand felt good.”
He walked Sacramento State catcher Dane Fujinaka to start the eighth and left with a 4-1 lead after back-to-back singles by Scott Loper and Kyle Moses loaded the bases, and the Hornets got a run when Nathan Lukes grounded into a double play.
Cal Poly third baseman Jimmy Allen couldn’t handle a hard-hit ball by Chris Lewis on the first pitch from Reilly, and Loper scored on the error to make it 4-2.
Allen made up for the mistake by snagging a grounder and throwing out Hoskins to end the eighth, and Reilly was perfect the rest of the way.
“The double play was kind of a game-winner,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “It’s bases-loaded, and you get two for one and only give up a run and have a chance to really minimize the damage.”
Cal Poly got all of its runs in the first four innings.
Zack Zehner tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Allen in the second. John Shuknecht singled and scored on a double by Mark Mathias in the third, and Schuknecht tripled in a run and scored on a Mathias single in the fourth.
Mathias and Schuknecht, both sophomores, were each 2 for 4.
Now Cal Poly turns its attention toward third-seeded Pepperdine, which beat second-seeded Arizona State 3-2 in the early game.
The Mustangs and Waves split two mid-week games this season. Cal Poly won the most recent matchup, a 5-1 victory at Baggett Stadium on May 6.
Pepperdine won a wild 11-4 game in Malibu the previous week.
Major League prospect Aaron Brown started that game for Pepperdine, and Cal Poly got two runs on two hits and four walks against him in two innings on his bullpen day.
But Brown (11-1, 2.24 ERA) figures to be much better on full rest and will start today’s game against Casey Bloomquist (12-1, 1.60 ERA), who has been the Mustangs’ most effective pitcher this season.
Lee, a Pepperdine alumnus, has a healthy respect for his alma mater and 10-year head coach Steve Rodriguez.
“I’ve known Steve for a long time,” Lee said. “We’re good friends, and we understand what happens on the field, win or lose, we have a good relationship.
“All of our coaches get along real good with their coaches. We understand it’s all about the players, and we pull for each other until we play each other.”