Cal Poly starting pitchers suspended for this weekend’s series against UC Irvine

Cal Poly freshman Spencer Howard will start Friday’s night series opener against UC Irvine.
Cal Poly freshman Spencer Howard will start Friday’s night series opener against UC Irvine.

A trying stretch for the Cal Poly baseball team just got a little more difficult.

Already reeling from losing eight straight road games and getting swept by Big West Conference opponents Long Beach State and CSUN, the Mustangs enter this weekend’s matchup with UC Irvine down three more key players.

Starting pitchers Kyle Smith, Erich Uelmen and Jarred Zill — all sophomores — have been suspended for this weekend’s games for a violation of team rules, a school spokesman told The Tribune. That means a relatively thin pitching staff will turn to freshman Spencer Howard to start the series opener at 6 p.m. Friday.

Fellow freshman Craig Colen will make his second start of the season Saturday night, and there was no projected Sunday starter listed in Cal Poly’s weekly press release.

In order to break out of a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference standings, the Mustangs (26-21, 7-8 Big West) will have to rely on an offense that has regressed in recent weeks.

Cal Poly hit a combined .180 against Long Beach State and managed a .177 average at CSUN.

Junior Brett Barbier (team-high .372 batting average) and senior John Schuknecht (35 RBI) still rank among the most productive players in the conference. Freshman Alex McKenna, a 34-game starter in centerfield who missed 12 straight contests with a leg injury, returned to the lineup Tuesday at Fresno State.

McKenna was used as a designated hitter and went hitless in four at-bats. His return is still encouraging for a team that’s constantly shifted its lineup over the past two weeks.

UC Irvine (27-19, 7-8 Big West) is led by 2015 Big West Freshman of the Year Keston Hiura, who leads the conference with a .400 batting average and ranks second in RBI (36) and home runs (seven).

The sophomore utility player leads the Anteaters in every offensive category.