Staying relevant in the Big West Conference is one of the Cal Poly baseball team’s seemingly simple goals on a week-to-week basis.
Head coach Larry Lee often speaks about wanting stay near the top of the conference standings in order to have an opportunity to make a postseason push during the second half of the Big West schedule.
The Mustangs have done exactly that at the midway point and made some positive noise in the process.
Cal Poly defeated No. 8 Cal State Fullerton for the second straight day, 8-4, in front of more than 2,100 fans Sunday afternoon inside Baggett Stadium. That victory secured the Mustangs’ fourth-consecutive Big West series win as they improved to 18-20 overall and 8-4 against conference opponents.
It’s been a 180-degree turnaround for a Cal Poly team that went 8-16 during nonconference play. Now, the Mustangs are second in the Big West standings behind Long Beach State and have made noticeable improvements in every facet of the game.
“We’re clicking at the right time,” said sophomore centerfielder Alex McKenna, who went 4-for-5 with a home run, double, two RBI and two runs during Sunday’s win.
Cal Poly regrouped after losing Friday’s series opener, a game it led 4-1 early, to take the next two against a Titans team that was heavily favored in the preseason to win the conference.
The Mustangs are scheduled to play five nonconference games over the next nine days, including a three-game series at UCLA, before returning to Big West play May 5 against the first-place Dirtbags in Long Beach.
“When you lose Friday in the fashion that we lost,” Lee said, “and we’re able to put that behind us and play two quality games and win the series, it just keeps us relevant for another week.”
Here are three things we learned about Cal Poly this weekend.
The Mustangs have been one of the most prolific offensive teams in the Big West since the start of conference play four weeks ago.
Cal Poly ranks in the top two of the conference in nearly every offensive category, including runs, hits, doubles, RBI, stolen bases, batting average and on-base percentage.
Scoring in bunches has become one of the Mustangs’ key traits, highlighted by a five-run second inning Sunday that included doubles from Josh George, Kevin Morgan and McKenna, and gave Cal Poly an early 6-1 advantage.
The Mustangs tallied double-digit hits in all three games against the Titans (24-14, 6-3 Big West), scoring 28 runs on 43 hits in the series.
Sunday’s 13-hit performance was more than enough offense to back up third-year sophomore right-hander Spencer Howard, who was scratched from the lineup Saturday night because of the stomach flu.
The former Templeton High standout worked through 5 1/3 innings and struck out seven before leaving the game in the sixth because of a blister on his throwing hand. He scattered six hits and allowed four runs, including three solo home runs on a particularly windy afternoon, to improve to 3-1 on the year.
“Howard delivered for us,” Lee said. “He just battled.”
Alex McKenna should be in the conversation for Big West Player of the Year.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound McKenna has been nothing short of superb over the past month.
He entered the weekend leading the Big West in batting average during conference games at .385, and recorded his 19th multi-hit performance of the season Sunday.
A rangy outfielder with impressive speed on the basepaths, McKenna has excelled since moving up to the leadoff spot in the batting order. He finished the weekend a combined 7-for-16 with two doubles, a triple, a home run, four runs, five RBI and three stolen bases.
McKenna has hit four home runs in the past 12 days.
“I think it’s just a matter of things being cleaned up mentally and physically,” McKenna said. “I think my athleticism is starting to come out. I’m not thinking as much as I was before.”
Senior Slater Lee turned in a clutch relief performance Saturday.
When Howard was sidelined Saturday, senior right-hander Slater Lee gave the Mustangs five strong innings of relief.
Lee pitched the final five innings of Cal Poly’s 13-6 victory, allowing one run on three hits with seven strikeouts and two walks. The five innings and seven strikeouts were both season highs, as Lee improved his record to 4-2 in 14 appearance out of the bullpen this year.
Between Lee, sophomore Michael Clark and junior Trent Shelton, Larry Lee seems to have settled on a relief rotation he trusts moving forward.
“That’s what wins you ballgames,” Larry Lee said. “It’s a trust factor when you go to somebody like Slater and like Michael Clark, a lot of times it’s their games to finish, win or lose.”