The Cal Poly softball team woke up Saturday morning with its back against the wall in the Big West Conference race.
But in a doubleheader against conference leader UC Davis later in the day, the Mustangs didn’t start playing like it until it was too late.
Cal Poly (21-22, 10-7 Big West) had two seventh-inning rallies fall short, dropped both games to the Aggies and finds itself on the precipice of elimination for a second straight Big West title and the automatic NCAA regional bid that comes along with it.
UC Davis (24-25, 13-4 Big West) won the first game 4-3 after turning a game-ending double play with the bases loaded and added a 7-3 win in Game 2.
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Playing in their final home series of the season, the Mustangs scored four of their six combined runs in the two seventh innings.
“It could be a lot of things,” said Cal Poly head coach Jenny Condon, who saw her team clinch a losing record at home for the first time in her six seasons at the helm. “Could be, we finally saw enough pitches in our at-bats. Or we just felt like we have nothing to lose at this point because we’re down by so many runs. Some of them probably felt like the pressure was off.
“But when you put that type of pressure on yourself, it’s not fair. Then when you don’t execute, you’re beating yourself up.”The pressure should have been on the Aggies, a team occupying first place for the first time since joining the Big West.
Cal Poly could have surpassed UC Davis in the standings with a three-game series sweep, but with the losses, the Mustangs are now one loss in today’s series finale or a Cal State Northridge victory over UC Riverside away from being knocked out of the championship race.
To win the Big West title outright, which it will have to do in order to avoid losing the postseason bid on tiebreakers, Cal Poly needs to win its remaining four games and needs both UC Davis and Cal State Northridge to lose out.
“We’re still competing,” senior first baseman Krysten Cary said. “We may not be standing-wise where we wanted to be, but I still think we’re out here competing all seven innings, all 14 depending on how may games we have in a day.”
Cal Poly was stymied in the first game through the first five innings Saturday.
Aggies freshman pitcher Dana Waldusky allowed just one hit before the sixth, and the UC Davis batters made Mustangs starter Rebecca Patton work extra hard in the circle.
Patton gave up all four runs, all earned, and threw a career-high 166 pitches.
The number looked even higher compared to the 77 pitches it took Waldusky to navigate six innings, but Patton pitched the complete game and finished off the last two-thirds of an inning in the second game.
Cal Poly relief pitcher Helen Pena did make it into the first game, but it was improbably as a pinch-hitter.
Pena, a senior, does not have a collegiate hit in seven at-bats.
But Condon called on Pena to bat with two on and one out and the Mustangs trailing by one in the seventh.
“You don’t hear that too often, but I have confidence in myself,” Pena said. “I’ve been working hard this year on hitting. I’ve always been a decent hitter growing up. I have good power. I just need to work on seeing it in and getting through the ball.”
Getting her first career hit “is actually a goal of mine,” Pena said. “I’m excited for it. Hopefully it’s going to come in a time where there’s going to be runners on and I can bring someone in.”
Pena eventually drew a walk to load the bases for Cary, who grounded hard to third to start the game-ending double play. In the second game, UC Davis rallied in the second to chase Cal Poly junior Anna Cahn early.
The reigning Big West Pitcher of the Year, Cahn gave up four runs on six hits in just 12⁄3 innings. Her conference record fell to 3-5 and her ERA in Big West play is up to 3.42.
Pena pitched five innings in relief, but UC Davis was able to stretch its lead to 7-1 going into the Mustangs’ final frame.
“Anna was not prepared to pitch today,” Condon said, “and that was unfortunate because I felt like going into the second game, we had a lot of momentum because we had a such great seventh inning.
“Ideally, we would have liked to have carried that over and shut them down and get after it. And we didn’t. We came out flat, and we waited around to see what was going to happen, and they smelled blood in the water.”