Cal Poly baseball coach Larry Lee summed up in a Sunday interview the Mustangs’ 2017 season in four words: “Too little, too late.”
It will come to an end this weekend with a Big West home series starting Thursday against UC Riverside — a team tied for last place in the conference — the Mustangs’ postseason goals a victim to a painfully slow start to their nonconference schedule.
Coming off a convincing series-sweep of UC Santa Barara, the Riverside series won’t have any postseason implications, but there are still a few meaningful things at stake.
The divergent paths of Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton tell the story. The teams are tied for second place with identical 14-7 records in the Big West play heading into their final series. But unlike Cal Poly, Fullerton was able to thrive in its nonconference schedule.
Cal Poly (26-27, 14-7 Big West) started its season winning just two of its 11 straight road games and finished nonconference play with an 8-16 record. Fullerton (33-19, 14-7 Big West), on the other hand, went 17-5 to start the season.
“I thought we would do much better,” Lee said. “On paper at the beginning of the season, everything looked good. We just had a lot of players pressing, and not a lot of players in the starting nine were productive. And it just snowballed.”
Cal Poly went on to win every series in Big West play, with the exception of losing two out of three against eventual Big West champion Long Beach State in early May.
But the damage was done.
Cal Poly needs to win this weekend’s series to finish the season with an overall record above .500. With Fullerton playing a three-game series on the road against Long Beach, Cal Poly also has a good chance to finish the year alone in second place. (In a preseason poll, Big West coaches predicted the Mustangs would finish in fourth place.)
But Fullerton is expected to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, while Cal Poly’s season will end Saturday.
Lee was candid Sunday when talking about Cal Poly’ struggling offense early in the season.
“You wasted the opportunity of two quality starters with (Erich) Uelmen and (Spencer) Howard,” Lee said of the pitchers who are both ranked in the top 5 in the conference in strikeouts. “They will be gone next year, so we will kind of have to start from scratch from a pitching standpoint.”
Howard, a redshirt sophomore from Templeton High School, carries a 2.13 ERA, second best in the conference. He and Uelmen, who is third in the conference with 88 strikeouts this season, are top 200 prospects and expected to be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, which begins June 12.
“It’s bittersweet,” Lee said. “You see your players getting better, but you also see a wasted opportunity with a couple of pretty live arms at the beginning of the rotation.”
Uelmen and Howard are expected to take the mound for the last time in a Cal Poly uniform Thursday and Friday, respectively.
Coming into this season, some outside the program believed that it would be next season before this Cal Poly team would compete for a Big West title. Based on the performances of a handful of sophomores — highlighted by infielder Kyle Marinconz, centerfielder Alex McKenna and catcher Nick Meyer — they might be right.
McKenna is hitting .396 in conference play and is expected to be a First-Team Big West selection. Meyer, who was selected this week to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, is regarded by Lee to be one of the best defensive catchers in the country. After struggling in nonconference play, Marinconz is hitting .341 against Big West competition and is near the top of the conference in doubles (7) and RBI (16).
A solid performance by those three against UC Riverside this weekend would go a long way in creating a good vibe heading into next season.
UC Riverside at Cal Poly
6 p.m. Thursday: Expected starter, Erich Uelman (3-8, 3.22 ERA)
6 p.m. Friday: Expected starter, Spencer Howard (7-1, 2.13 ERA)
1 p.m. Saturday: Starter TBA