Slow starts have killed the Cal Poly baseball team over the past few years.
The Mustangs have posted a combined 5-11 record in February the past two seasons — 2-6 in 2017 and 3-5 last year.
It’s ultimately cost them a spot in the postseason despite finishing second in the Big West Conference in each of those seasons. Cal Poly hasn’t earned an NCAA playoff berth since 2014.
This season will be an uphill battle once again; Cal Poly was swept in both weekend series, against Oklahoma and Cal, to open the year and has a 2-6 record going into this weekend’s matchup at Washington, a College World Series participant last year.
“We better be ready from pitch one if we want to accomplish what we need to accomplish,” Cal Poly’s 17-year head coach Larry Lee said before the season started. “It is an extremely challenging schedule for the group we have. We’ll have to be able to pitch and play defense to keep ourselves in each and every game. We have to be very good in both non-conference and conference games in order to gain a regional berth.”
The Big West’s nine other head coaches weren’t overly confident in that ability, picking the Mustangs to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason poll. Cal State Fullerton was selected to repeat as Big West champion, followed by UC Irvine and Long Beach State.
Neither Oklahoma nor Cal were pushovers, however. Oklahoma was a playoff team last year, and Cal finished fifth in the tough Pac-12 Conference and features last year’s Golden Spikes Award (given to the nation’s top player) winner in Andrew Vaughn.
The Mustangs will have a total of 17 games against 2018 playoff teams and 30 total home games. Saturday games at home have been moved to 4 p.m. to help with the turnaround for the 1 p.m. Sunday starts.
Cal Poly returns 18 players and four players who redshirted on last year’s team. Here’s a look at some players who should be key contributors this season:
There are 10 returners from last year’s pitching staff, including those who started 40 of the Mustang’s 57 games.
Senior right-hander Jarred Zill and junior right-hander Bobby Ay missed the majority of the season due to injury. Both will figure to be a part of the weekend rotation, which will also include right-handers Taylor Dollard and Darren Nelson, and freshman lefty Chase Watkins.
Zill made five starts with an 0-1 record and a 3.00 ERA before he missed the rest of the year. He also missed the entire 2017 season and was given a medical redshirt.
Dollard pitched in 19 games as a reliever, going 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA and three saves. Nelson was a middle man in the weekend rotation, going 5-4 with a 4.79 ERA in 16 starts.
Senior Michael Clark, who earned 11 saves last season, should also figure into the group of relievers.
The defense behind the pitching will be anchored by five returning players, including junior outfielder Bradlee Beesley, junior shortstop Dylan Doherty, sophomore third baseman Nick DiCarlo, sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson and junior infielder Scott Ogrin.
Ogrin will sit for at least the first half of 2019 due to injury, leaving a spot open for freshman Willie Cano to contribute immediately.
Beesley moves over to center field from right after Alex McKenna was drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Astros. Beesley’s vacated spot will be taken by community college transfer Elijah Greene, and sophomore Cole Cabrera will be in left.
Junior Myles Emmerson will be behind the plate, taking over for 2018 Big West Defensive Player of the Year Nick Meyer. Former Tribune County Player of the Year Mark Armstrong will also be eligible after redshirting his freshman season. Junior John Mackay, junior transfer Connor Loucks and freshman AJ Esperanza will also be in the mix.
Beesley, a second-team All-Big West selection last season, hit .368 in the Cape Cod League during the summer, with four doubles, two triples, one home run and eight RBI in 22 games. He is off to a torrid start to 2019, going 15 for 33 with three doubles and seven RBI through Friday in eight games.
“Outside of Beesley, there is no proven commodity on the offensive end,” Lee said. “We have a number of players who have playing experience at this level, and they will need to up their game to a higher level. Collectively, they need to produce a productive lineup.”
Greene produced at the community college level, hitting .428 for Mt. San Antonio College with 16 doubles, five triples, eight home runs and 46 RBI. Sophomore Blake Wagenseller is penciled as the designated hitter.
The Mustangs open the Washington series at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Cal Poly returns home March 8 for a three-game weekend series against Columbia.