Coming back from a torn labrum that took months to diagnose, Steven Fischback has not pitched in a year-and-a-half now.
But the junior righty — formerly a hyped prospect — is one of a couple of players who could return to give the Cal Poly baseball team a boost in its quest for a second-straight trip to the postseason.
As they open the season with the first of a three-game set against USC tonight at 6 at Baggett Stadium, the Mustangs might be thinking more about what they do have rather than what they don’t.
The best example: Sophomore second baseman Matt Jensen is back to 100 percent after a broken collarbone forced him out of the final 15 games last season.
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Fischback, however, could be an attractive addition to a pitching staff that returns almost intact but remains largely unproven. That is, if he can return to the form that garnered him high praise from one of baseball’s most respected publications.
“I think if I’m healthy, it will come back,” Fischback said, “but I don’t know. It’s tough being out and having the team be so good and not being a part of it.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Walnut Creek had modest numbers (5-4, 4.55 ERA) the last season he pitched for Cal Poly nearly two years ago, but in the summer of 2008, Baseball America ranked him as the top prospect coming out of the Alaska Baseball League, an offseason wood bat setup for college players similar to the local California Collegiate League.
At his best, Fischback was consistently throwing two-seam fastballs between 88 and 92 miles per hour and topped out at 94. With a four-pitch repertoire that also included a slider, curveball and changeup, he looked like the latest in a consistent line of Cal Poly starters bound for professional baseball.
With the praise came high expectations. Only, before the 2009 season got under way, Fischback tore his labrum playing catch, and the tear gave doctors the slip until he had surgery in May.
He’s now nine months away from the procedure, at a point that would put him in the optimistic range to begin his comeback.
Fischback is not quite ready yet, however, and that range also conservatively spans the next three months — or the entire college season.
“I always hope I can return to the form that I had before surgery,” Fischback said. “If I can get that before the end of the season, I think I can jump in and do pretty well.”
First baseman David Van Ostrand is another player who may have to sit out this season but would be a huge addition since Wes Dorrell’s transfer to Fresno Pacific has left a void at the position.
Van Ostrand, the 6-6 younger brother of former Mustangs and current Houston Astros minor leaguer Jimmy Van Ostrand, could step right in at first base if the NCAA grants him a sixth season of eligibility. He sat out last season with an illness.
“That would be huge,” Jensen said about the possibility of getting contributions from both Fischback and David Van Ostrand. “I’ve never seen Fisch pitch, but I’ve heard pretty good things about him.
“V.O. is a very nice target to throw to at first base, and he swings it and puts a good lefty bat in the lineup. It’s really good if we can get them.”
For now, having Jensen, a freshman All-American who batted .375 with 53 RBI and sported a 23-game hit streak, back on the field is plenty.
The Mustangs did go 37-21 last season and earned their first Division I regional berth in program history, but there was a marked decline after Jensen shattered his right collarbone colliding with a baserunner prior to the season’s home stretch.
Cal Poly was ranked in the top 25 for 13 straight weeks before losing its final four games of the season and 11 of its last 18.
Without one of its most dangerous hitters, the shortcomings of a pitching staff that sported a team ERA of 5.95 were exaggerated.
All three weekend starters return from last season, including sophomore Mason Radeke, senior Matt Leonard and senior D.J. Mauldin. Mauldin is slated to move back to the bullpen with sophomore Kyle Anderson taking his spot in the rotation, and Fischback possibly competing for that role by the start of Big West Conference play. Jensen could even move to the mound to close games.
Other than relief specialist Mark DeVincenzi, the rest of the staff is a question mark. Catcher Ross Brayton, who pleasantly surprised with a .393 average last season, thinks it is improved, but the Mustangs will have to show that on the field.
“This year’s staff is ahead of where we were last year,” Brayton said. “This year, we have more depth to our bullpen, more depth to our starting pitching. At certain times last year, our relievers were going all three days. They were tired, and I feel like this year, we have more guys that can give those guys a break.”