Nick Meyer emerged as a leader for Cal Poly’s young baseball team last spring, a role that was perhaps a byproduct of his position at catcher and a reflection of his blue-collar mentality.
So he has a unique perspective on what can be expected out of the Mustangs this season. And when the sophomore heard people outside the program say 2018 “is going to be our dominant year,” he often had one thought: Why wait?
“This is our year. We’ve got everyone we need,” said Meyer, the 2016 Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year. “Our pitching is good, defense, hitting, we’ve got it all. We don’t need to wait.”
That’s the mindset for the Mustangs as they begin the season with a three-game series against Pac-12 opponent Cal at 7 p.m. Friday inside the 2,500-seat Evans Diamond in Berkeley.
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Despite losing three key players to the Major League Baseball draft, Cal Poly returns a wealth of talent and experience for 15th-year head coach Larry Lee and his staff to work with.
Coming off a 32-win season a year ago, the Mustangs were picked to finish fourth in the Big West Conference preseason coaches poll, with traditional powers Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and resurgent UC Santa Barbara all expected to be among the top 25 teams in the country this season.
“Even though we’re still young on the position player side, there’s a lot of experience from last year,” Lee said. “A lot of it boils down to pitching.”
Pitchers and catchers
Cal Poly has the rare luxury of returning all three of its weekend starters, with more than a handful of other veterans expected to challenge for innings throughout the 56-game season.
Juniors Erich Uelmen (5-3, 3.68 ERA), Jarred Zill (4-3, 2.79 ERA) and Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64 ERA) served as the weekend rotation in 2016, and they will be leaned on to set the tone defensively.
The hard-throwing Uelmen, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander, spent the summer playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League and will be on the mound for Friday’s season opener.
“I want to be able to lead my team and start the weekend with good energy, set a good tempo,” Uelmen said.
Lee said sophomore Michael Clark and senior Slater Lee both had strong offseasons, and sophomore Bobby Ay is making his case to see an increased role this spring. There’s also been positive buzz around sophomore right-hander Spencer Howard, who went 3-1 with a 2.95 ERA as a redshirt freshman last season.
The Templeton High School graduate could fill the top reliever role vacated by Justin Calomeni or push for a starting spot. Lee also praised junior Trent Shelton, an Oregon State transfer who gives the Mustangs a left-handed arm out of the bullpen.
“I think we have a chance,” Lee said, “if we can get the right guys in a starting role, to have a lot deeper bullpen than we’ve had in the past.”
Meyer was rock-solid behind the plate last year and started 50 of the 51 games he played, hitting .301 with seven doubles and 21 RBI. He led the Big West by picking off 10 runners and threw out 22 would-be base stealers during his freshman campaign.
“He has a chance of being one of the better defensive catchers on the West Coast,” Lee said. “He brings a lot of old-school type of leadership qualities. He’s not afraid to get on people. I think more so than anything he plays the game to win.”
Senior third baseman Michael Sanderson and sophomore second baseman Kyle Marinconz each return after starting all 57 games in the infield a year ago.
Marinconz bounced between second base and shortstop throughout the season and remained one of Cal Poly’s most consistent hitters at the top of the order. He led the team in at-bats (225) and doubles (15) and was second in hits (64) as a true freshman.
San Leandro High School graduate Bradlee Beesley is the projected starter at shortstop and will hit in the leadoff spot as one of two true freshmen in the lineup Friday night. Both Marinconz and Dylan Doherty experienced first-year struggles at shortstop in 2016, but Beesley’s bat could keep in the lineup through those ups and downs.
“He’s a fiery competitor, he knows what he’s doing at the plate, very good on defense,” Meyer said. “He’s going to make his handful of errors, but it’s gonna come. He’s definitely going to be a bright, bright player in the future.”
Cypress College transfer Elijah Skipps is expected to start at first base with sophomore returner Cooper Moore sidelined for the first six weeks of the season. Seniors Brett Binning and Alec Smith also provide some depth in the infield and can each play multiple positions if called upon.
When Alex McKenna and Josh Gorge were both injured for an extended period last season, the Mustangs’ offense was never quite the same.
George, a junior left fielder, is Cal Poly’s top returning hitter after batting .306 with 16 RBI and 33 runs in 46 games last season. McKenna, a sophomore center fielder, tied for the team lead with six home runs and drove in 27 runs during his first collegiate season.
The third expected starter in the outfield is true freshman Scott Ogrin, a high school shortstop transitioning to right field. He was a career .405 hitter at Valencia High School and caught the attention of coaches and teammates with his mature approach at the plate in practices.
Senior Kevin Morgan also returns as a proven reserve in the outfield with a knack for timely hitting. Junior college transfer Colby Barrick and freshman Gabe Barthelmass will also compete for playing time in the outfield this season.
Cal Poly Baseball 2017
Last year: 32-25 overall, 12-12 Big West (fourth)
Top returners: RHP Erich Uelmen, OF Alex McKenna, C Nick Meyer
Key losses: INF Brett Barbier, OF John Schuknecht, RHP Justin Calomeni
Season opener: 7 p.m. Friday vs. Cal at Evans Diamond
Home opener: 1 p.m. Monday vs. Stanford