It stands to reason Brian Mundell could raise his draft stock by playing in the field, even if it’s a position he hasn’t played since his junior year in high school.
Scouts would see how the hulking slugger can handle playing defense. If he performs well, he’ll prove he’s more than just a heavy hitter.
After entering the program as an acclaimed catcher three years ago, the junior will finally get his chance when the Cal Poly baseball team opens the season today with the first of a three-game series at Baylor, starting at first base after serving as the designated hitter each of the past two seasons.
But, as the Mustangs look to improve on last year’s groundbreaking season, Mundell, who hit .279 with 12 doubles, four home runs and 41 RBI, said his new assignment has made him an even better hitter.
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Focus on learning to play first base has forced him to forget about his at-bats, a philosophy that has been a major contributing factor to Cal Poly’s emergence as one of the nation’s elite.
“The last two years DHing,” Mundell said, “it’s good because you’re in the lineup and always focused on the game, but when you’re sitting in the dugout, and you make the last out in the inning or you get a hit and someone gets out and the inning’s over, you have seven or eight more at-bats until it’s back to your spot in the lineup. Staying attentive in that situation is a little hard sometimes.
“Playing the field, you have to be in tune and focused for every single pitch because the one time you’re not focused the ball’s going to come your way.
“If I’m bringing over bad at-bats in the field, I’m going to be thinking about it too much and the focus isn’t going to be there.”
Forgetting about the last at-bat, the last inning, the last swing, has been a mantra the past few seasons as the Mustangs have shown steady progression from being a little-known program angling to rise above its penchant for being left outside the NCAA bubble to a Big West Conference title contender with national recognition from poll voters.
It will be difficult to flush the feelings of last season. Cal Poly set a program record for wins, took the conference crown for the first time, hosted an NCAA regional and got as deep into the postseason as it ever has in its Division I history.
As the Mustangs (47-12 last year, 19-5 Big West) attempt to build on that momentum, Mundell helps lead a lineup with plenty of experience despite losing Nick Torres, Jimmy Allen and Chris Hoo to pro baseball.
Peter Van Gansen is a three-year starter at shortstop and projects to lead off. Jordan Ellis is entering his third year starting in centerfield and will bat second. Second baseman Mark Mathias may not make his debut in the field after offseason shoulder surgery, but the preseason All-American is ahead of schedule on his rehab, has already faced live hitting and may miss as few as seven games before returning to the lineup at designated hitter.
Zach Zehner returns for his senior season after being drafted in the seventh round last June, and John Schuknecht moves to third base full time after playing 30 games last season.
With those six returners at the plate, Cal Poly is expecting to score runs.
Still, the Mustangs were left out of several major preseason polls after being a fixture in all of them during last season, even ascending to the top spot for a week in one.
Maybe voters took pause after news of Mathias’ injury broke in December. Perhaps they view the departure of ace pitcher Matt Imhof, a second-round draft pick, and closer Reed Reilly, a seventh-rounder, as too much to overcome.
Junior Casey Bloomquist becomes the new ace, moving from Sundays to Fridays after going 12-2 last season with a 1.56 ERA, including two complete games and a shutout.
After the junior preseason All-America right-hander, Cal Poly will be depending on sophomore starters Slater Lee and Justin Calomeni to occupy two weekend rotation spots to start the year, and both remain question marks after offseason knee surgeries.
If they falter, the responsibility will fall to incoming freshmen hurlers.
Mustangs head coach Larry Lee praised the development of freshmen relievers Michael Gomez, Erich Uelmen and Kyle Smith. Freshmen Jared Zill and Andrew Bernstein have also made cases to join the rotation on Tuesdays.
Until Cal Poly starts playing, the performance of the freshmen and the resiliency of Lee and Calomeni remains theoretical, but their roles will be pivotal.
“Everybody out there is going to doubt the pitching staff this year,” Bloomquist said. “We didn’t get nominated in some of the national polls, and I feel like the reason is because of our pitching staff. We’re the guys who have to show we’re worth something this year. We call it ‘the hunters.’ We have to go out and pursue everybody.”