Cal Poly

Cal Poly baseball team looks to regroup as Big West Conference play begins

Cal Poly third baseman Michael Sanderson is batting .290 in 19 games this season. The Mustangs open Big West Conference play at 6:30 p.m. Friday at UC Irvine.
Cal Poly third baseman Michael Sanderson is batting .290 in 19 games this season. The Mustangs open Big West Conference play at 6:30 p.m. Friday at UC Irvine. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Cal Poly baseball team struggled its way through a 24-game nonconference schedule and will look to begin anew when Big West Conference play opens this week.

The Mustangs (8-16) have lost three in a row and five of their last six heading into a three-game series against UC Irvine at 6:30 p.m. Friday inside Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark.

Junior right-handed pitcher Erich Uelmen is in line to make his seventh start of the season. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Uelmen has been dynamic as Cal Poly’s No. 1 starter, allowing 11 earned runs with 41 strikeouts and nine walks in 39 1/3 innings.

He has a 1-4 record to show for it, largely because the Mustangs have generated the second-fewest runs (96) in the Big West offensively.

That’s also part of the reason why sophomore Spencer Howard, who leads the conference with a 1.37 ERA, is 1-0 in eight appearances.

While the pitching staff has been steady, Cal Poly continues to be one of most inconsistent defensive teams in the conference. They’ve committed 42 errors in 24 games and are on track to lead the Big West in errors for the second consecutive season.

The Anteaters (11-10) bring a five-game losing streak into the series opener despite owning the highest fielding percentage in the nation at .986. They also have one of the best hitters on the West Coast in junior Keston Hiura, who leads the Big West in most offensive categories.

UC Irvine closer Calvin Faucher has shown a knack for closing the door on opponents with a conference-leading eight saves, the forth most in the country.

That’s a potentially unsettling thought for a Mustangs team that is 2-5 in games decided by two runs or less.

Here is a look at where the other eight Big West teams stand heading into conference play:

Hawaii (15-8)

The Rainbow Warriors are one of the surprise stories in the Big West this spring. Picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll, Hawaii owns the best nonconference record in the Big West and is riding a five-game winning streak. Senior pitcher Brendan Hornung leads the conference in strikeouts (51) and has walked three in more than 46 innings on the mound.

Cal State Fullerton (15-9)

Head coach Rick Vanderhook led the Titans to their 21st Big West championship last spring, and they’re the going away favorite to repeat this year. Cal State Fullerton returned four all-conference performers and welcomed in the No. 21 recruiting class in the country according to Collegiate Baseball. Vanderhook and his staff have navigated a string of key injuries — including one to Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year Colton Eastman — to keep the Titans in the top 15 of most major polls this week.

Long Beach State (14-10)

The 49ers enter Big West play having won eight of their last 10 games, including a three-game sweep of then-No. 5 Cal State Fullerton last weekend. Long Beach State finished second in the Big West a year ago and brings back many of the key cogs from that team. Defending Big West Pitcher of the Year Darren McCaughan is one of three first-team all-conference returners, along with catcher David Banuelos and designated hitter Luke Rasmussen.

UC Riverside (11-9)

Former Cuesta College standout Alex Fagalde has pitched as well as anyone in the Big West this season. The fifth-year senior owns a 4-0 record — the most wins in the conference — and has the fourth-lowest ERA at 1.80. Fagalde is holding opponents to a .187 batting average and has recorded 28 strikeouts against four walks. The Highlanders have shown power at the plate with 15 home runs, including four off the bat of freshman first baseman Connor Cannon.

UC Irvine (11-10)

Hiura has picked up right where he left off a year ago when he reached base in 52 consecutive games and owned a 19-game hitting streak. The junior utility player leads the Big West in batting average (.403) and home runs (six), and ranks second in RBI (21). Hiura’s .849 slugging percentage is the fifth-highest mark in the country. He’s a big reason why the Anteaters, who have lost five straight, lead the Big West in batting average, runs and RBI.

CSUN (12-13)

The Matadors put together two impressive nonconference series wins in March, taking two of three games from then-No. 14 Vanderbilt (their first series win against a top-25 team since 2009) and three of four against Purdue. Junior catcher Albee Weiss has set the tone for CSUN offensively, leading the Big West with 24 RBI and he is tied with teammate Kevin Riley for second in the conference with five home runs.

UC Santa Barbara (10-12)

The Gauchos won 43 games last year en route to the first College World Series berth in program history. UC Santa Barbara brought in the No. 9 recruiting class in the country to help make up for the loss of some key seniors. Junior lefty Kyle Nelson, the reigning Big West Pitcher of the Week, and shortstop Clay Fisher are expected to do much of the heavy lifting in 2017. The Gauchos jump right into the thick of Big West competition with a three-game series against Long Beach State.

UC Davis (6-12)

A challenging nonconference schedule that included series against No. 1-ranked Oregon State, UConn and Creighton has the Aggies looking up at the rest of the conference. UC Davis finished last in the Big West a year ago and was picked to come in ninth again this spring. Sophomore Ryan Anderson lead the lowest-scoring offense in the Big West in batting average (.361), runs (12), hits (26), home runs (three) and RBI (14).

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