Thursday marks the dawn of a new season for Cal Poly baseball.
The Mustangs hope to leave the errors and double plays in the past as the 24-game Big West Conference slate opens with a three-game road trip to CSU Northridge.
And there is only one option for Cal Poly if it wants to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, according to head coach Larry Lee: “We have to win our conference to get a postseason bid,” Lee said Saturday. “We haven’t played well enough in nonconference play to have any other way.”
Following a three-game home sweep of Dartmouth over the weekend, Cal Poly enters Thursday’s game against CSUN with an 11-12 record. Here are four things to watch as Lee looks to lead Cal Poly to its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in his 16th season.
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First-year players have had a major impact on the mound and at the plate early on for Cal Poly — perhaps none more than freshmen Tate Samuelson and Darren Nelson.
Samuelson, who has taken over at first base for senior Elijah Skipps, leads the team in RBI (17) from either the four or five spot in the lineup and is hitting .308 with a pair of home runs through the first 23 games.
“He’s been one of our most consistent hitters and the best freshman from an offensive standpoint,” Lee said.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander played third base at Serra High School in San Diego, but Lee said he’s happy with his progress at his new position, though he does have the second most errors on the team with seven.
Nelson, a monster of a man at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, was hailed as a potential two-way starter coming out of Granite Bay, but it has been on the mound where he’s made his biggest contribution so far. Nelson is 3-2 as a weekend starter with a 2.40 ERA and 22 strikeouts in seven starts (30 innings pitched).
He’s one of a trio of Mustang pitchers, including relievers Taylor Dollard and Matt Arens, who have surprised with their early success.
“You think, ‘That’s your future on the mound,’ but the future is right now,” Lee said. “They have been three of the better pitchers on the staff.”
Dollard, a freshman right-hander from Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, has a 2.21 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20.1 innings pitched. Arens, a big lefty from Minnesota, has a 1.38 ERA in nine appearances.
Cal Poly finished in second place in the Big West last season behind Long Beach State with a 16-8 record (28-28 overall). A big reason for its second-place finish, Lee said, was the team’s inability to sweep conference series when it had the chance.
“Last year, we won seven of eight conference series, but because of inability to sweep opponents, we were second place, and we allowed (Long Beach State) to run away with the title,” Lee said.
Last season, the only Mustangs' sweep came against UCSB and the only lost series came to Long Beach, which won the conference with a 20-4 record.
“If you want to have any chance of winning a conference title, when you get the chance to sweep somebody, you have to sweep them,” Lee said.
Return of Zill, Departure of Shelton
Just as Cal Poly welcomes back its Friday starter, another starter heads to the bench.
Junior pitcher Jarred Zill returned two weeks ago following a year-long recovery from Tommy John surgery. Playing on a pitch count, the righty pitched well in starts against San Diego State and Dartmouth. He has three strikeouts and three earned runs in eight innings of work.
“Velocity-wise, he is better than ever, he just needs more stamina,” Lee said, adding his pitch count will slowly increase in the coming weeks. “It starts with him. The further he can go on Friday night the less we have to rely on our bullpen, and the more we can save for Saturday and Sunday.”
The bullpen will become more important than ever in the first two weeks of conference play as senior Trent Shelton recovers from a recent emergency surgery to remove his appendix.
“That’s a big blow because he brings experience, and he’s a left-handed pitcher,” Lee said. “Now you have to take somebody out of the bullpen. You really can’t replace him. Hopefully he’s only out for one more weekend, but that might be a stretch.”
Shelton carried a 2.93 ERA and led the team with 35 strikeouts in five games before he went down.
There was a point last week, Lee said, when no team in the NCAA had hit into more double plays than Cal Poly.
It's not quite as bad this week. There are now 12 teams that have hit into more double plays than the Mustangs, but with 24 in 23 games they still are tied for 13th out of 294 college baseball programs in that dubious category.
The team has been working on changing that trend during recent practices.
“We don’t run that well, and sometimes in hitter’s counts we are just touching the ball instead of seeing the ball up and not driving the ball,” Lee said.
On the defensive side, the defensive problems have continued. Cal Poly has 37 errors in 23 games, the most out of any team in the Big West.
Junior shortstop Kyle Marinconz has been hitting well, with a team-leading three home runs and .406 on-base-percentage, but has struggled in the field with a team-high nine errors. Lee said Marinconz, along with freshman third baseman Nick DiCarlo, Samuelson and second baseman Dylan Doherty (Cal Poly’s best defensive infielder) will need to improve if Cal Poly wants a conference title.
Thursday’s Big West opener between Cal Poly and CSUN puts two of the best hitting teams in the conference on the same field. Cal Poly leads Big West teams with a .290 batting average, while CSUN has a team filled with home-run hitters. The Matadors have 37 home runs in 23 games led by Albee Weiss, who already has 12.
Elsewhere, Hawaii (14-8) has the best record in the Big West heading into conference play followed by UC Irvine (12-10) and UC Riverside (10-9).