All season long, Cal Poly baseball coach Larry Lee has spoken to his young team about staying relevant in the Big West Conference.
The Mustangs proved they received that message loud and clear on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at Baggett Stadium.
John Schuknecht and Brett Binning had two hits apiece and each scored a run, helping Cal Poly defeat No. 11 UC Santa Barbara 4-3 and secure a three-game sweep in the Blue-Green Rivalry.
“This weekend was awesome. It’s just a big confidence booster for us,” said Schuknecht, who finished the series 6 for 12 with five RBI and three runs. “This should be our standard. We should come out and expect to play like this all the time.”
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Cal Poly improved to 25-13 overall and moved into first place in the Big West standings at 7-2 following its sixth consecutive victory.
The Mustangs’ young pitching staff was sharp throughout the weekend against the highest-scoring team in the Big West. The Gauchos (25-10-1, 6-4 Big West) entered Sunday’s matchup having scored 203 runs in 35 games, an average of 5.8 per contest.
UC Santa Barbara couldn’t seem to find that same productive offense against the Mustangs, however. Sophomore starters Kyle Smith and Erich Uelmen held the visiting Gauchos to a .161 batting average through the first two games of the weekend.
Fellow sophomore Jarred Zill (4-1) carried that momentum into the series finale to earn his third straight victory. He scattered four hits over 6 1/3 innings and struck out five before leaving to a spirited ovation from the 1,505 fans in attendance.
“Our starting pitching was outstanding against a very good college hitting team,” Lee said. “Especially with all the left-handed hitters they throw at you.”
Freshman reliever Justin Bruihl appeared in all three games and did not allow a hit or run in four combined innings. He recorded only one out in Sunday’s game before being pulled in favor of Templeton High graduate Spencer Howard in the eighth inning.
UC Santa Barbara sent six batters to the plate during a relatively shaky eighth. That frame ended with a remarkable diving catch from sophomore center fielder Josh George, who stayed down on the grass for several minutes after recording the third out.
George, who was filling in for the injured Alex McKenna, did not return and had a bag of ice on his left shoulder following the game.
“That’s basically a game-saving catch,” Lee said. “But the shoulder stuck in the grass and (it’s) very unfortunate. Hopefully he recovers soon.”
Cal Poly is scheduled to play eight of its next nine games on the road. They go to Cal on Tuesday before opening a three-game series at Long Beach State on Friday.
Lee said he was curious how the Mustangs will respond to having “a little bit more of a bull’s eye on our back.”
But, he added, Cal Poly is “happy to be in that position to be relevant and play meaningful games.
“That’s how you get better as an individual and as a team.”