Chase Johnson went from intimidated to intimidating.
For the Cal Poly sophomore closer, gaining experience — and a move to the bullpen — was the difference.
Left fielder Matt Russell needed to prove he could handle the skills it takes for a No. 2 hitter to win Mustangs head coach Larry Lee’s heart.
Russell’s proficiency at things like bunting and the hit-and-run have helped him get the opportunity to have as many hits in an eventful opening series for Cal Poly (3-0) as the sophomore had all of last season.
Lee said he can rarely tell when or which player will make a big leap in confidence and ability from one year to the next, but the Mustangs were in need of some this season with four drafted players and several other senior contributors gone from last season’s team.
If a three-game sweep of visiting Oklahoma State is any indication, Lee might be getting the breakout performances he was hoping for.
Following a ninth inning where he struck out the side on Friday, Johnson came on to slam the door on a 6-0 victory over the Cowboys (0-3) with two more strikeouts in Sunday’s ninth, showcasing an upgraded fastball to 2,010 spectators — the largest crowd at Baggett Stadium since a 2009 visit by Cal State Fullerton.
“Last year, I was a freshman and I didn’t know if my fastball was good enough to throw by people,” said Johnson whose fastball was in the high 80s and topped out at 93 mph as a starter, “and now, after I played all last year and played over the summer, I know I can throw my fastball by people. There’s just that confidence.”
Johnson helped the Corvallis Knights win a championship in the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League in the offseason, going 3-1 with 2.03 ERA. When he began to focus on relief appearances rather than starts, he found he could throw a lot harder in the shorter outings.
Johnson’s fastball is consistently around 95 now, and he has worked on improving his secondary pitches.
“He was very dominant Friday and today,” Lee said. “He’s got an electric fastball, and now he’s starting to get a better feel of a slider.
“He touched 97 on Friday, and under the lights, that looks 100. At times, he throws rockets, and it’s a good feeling.”
Russell had similar success in the summer, hitting .404 with three home runs, five triples, 6 doubles and 22 RBI for his hometown West Coast Rangers in Ventura, though this weekend didn’t start out with the same dominance.
He was 0 for 6 with a walk and a sacrifice on the season before coming to plate with runners on second and third with no outs in the fifth. “I was just thinking, I’ve got to stick with my approach,” Russell said. “We’ve got to stay within ourselves. I knew I was going to get a chance to do something big.
“I just tried to flush the at-bats from beforehand out of my mind. It’s a new at-bat and just stick with the approach. If I got a fastball early, I was going to try and jump on it.”
Russell yanked a first-pitch fastball from Oklahoma State starter Randy McCurry through the right side for a two-run single and ended up on second base when the throw from right went to the plate.
To Lee, Russell’s first and only hit of the season so far was sweeter because of the perseverance it took to get it.
“When you come through like that after going through some hard times, it makes you better,” Lee said, “it gives you more confidence and builds your self esteem. It’s a game of failure and how you deal with it says a lot about you as a ballplayer.
Russell’s two RBI put the Mustangs on top 4-0 after senior shortstop Mike Miller’s two-run bases-loaded double broke a scoreless tie in the previous at-bat.
Miller batted 1 for 5 with his second double of the season, Jimmy Allen was 2 for 4 with an RBI and freshman Ryan Drobny was 1 for 3 with his second collegiate double.
Single-run rallies in the sixth and seventh innings also helped make starting pitcher Kyle Bruggemann a winner in his Cal Poly debut, where the transfer from College of the Sequoias struck out seven and pitched out of several jams in 6 2⁄3 innings.
In the series, Cal Poly threw two shutouts and only allowed three runs to Oklahoma State, a team that’s led the Big 12 Conference in home runs five of the past seven seasons, has twice led the conference in batting over the same span and finished second four times.
The Cowboys were coming off a season in which they finished 35-25 and made it to an NCAA regional.
Monterey Peninsula College transfer Nick Grim, drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 14th round last June, bridged the gap from Bruggemann to Johnson, allowing a hit and a walk while striking out one in 1 1⁄3 innings.
“Our bullpen is real solid,” Lee said, “there’s quality, there’s depth and hopefully over the course of the next couple weeks, we can add some more guys into the equation.”