Cal Poly

Cal Poly returns veteran squad as it chases NCAA baseball berth

While he’s been trying to get more food to stick to his ribs, Jimmy Allen has had something else rumbling around in his gut. 

It’s the way last season ended for the Cal Poly baseball team — one win short of the Big West Conference championship and one of the last few teams left out of the NCAA regionals. 

At 36-20, the Mustangs had the best winning percentage in the conference and led the Big West in nearly every offensive category. They won their last seven games and 14 of their final 17 before being shut out of the postseason. 

And the sinking feeling of being excluded followed the Cal Poly third baseman all the way to Eau Claire, Wis., where he played in the Northwoods League over the summer. 

“I was definitely bummed out of belief that we didn’t make it,” Allen said. “Winning seven games in a row and just beating everybody, it was tough going to summer ball with people asking how your season went and you’ve got to explain the whole story about how we had the most wins out of all the schools in conference but didn’t make the playoffs. It just fueled our fire coming into this season.”

Also coming off a season where he was a first-team all-conference selection, Allen is trying to start the year 5 to 10 pounds heavier, taking it upon himself to make up for some of the power lost when former centerfielder and Big West Player of the Year Mitch Haniger went to the Milwaukee Brewers as a compensatory first-round pick. 

With a little more pop, perhaps some of Allen’s conference-leading 20 doubles from last season might carry over the fence. It would be nice for Cal Poly if his .345 batting average carried over as well going into tonight’s season opener and a three-game weekend series at San Francisco. 

After losing just three position players from the starting lineup and one starting pitcher, the Mustangs are on a mission to make the program’s second trip to a Division I regional after coming so close last season.

“It’s number one,” Allen said. “We have a ton of experience from last year, and we just have that desire to show the NCAA that we’re a great team. And we deserve to get that chance just like last year.”

Haniger and shortstop Mike Miller, who went in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft to the Boston Red Sox, were key components to the Mustangs pacing the Big West in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, slugging and on-base percentage.  

But several other offensive cogs return, including Allen, centerfielder David Armendariz — who finished the season with back-to-back conference player of the week honors — and all-conference designated hitter Tim Wise, who’ll start at first base.

First-team all-conference selection Chris Hoo is back at catcher, where Elliot Stewart also returns after Tommy John surgery and is looking better than ever, head coach Larry Lee said. Nick Torres is a second-year starter in right field, and fifth-year senior Denver Chavez is healthy enough to start at second base.

True freshman Peter Van Gansen has worked his way into the starting spot at shortstop, and fellow freshmen Brian Mundell, John Schucknect and Mark Mathias are getting serious consideration to start at other positions as well. 

“We definitely lost key guys,” senior pitcher Joey Wagman said. “Those guys are going to be extremely hard to replace, but we feel confident we have enough guys to collectively fill those voids.”

Entering his 11th season at Cal Poly, Lee is hoping the pitching can match up with the offense this year after the Mustangs were dogged by Sunday and mid-week losses that hurt their qualifications for an at-large regional berth. 

Wagman is back as the Friday night starter after going 9-3 with a 2.33 ERA and his first career complete-game shutout in his first full season in the weekend rotation. 

Left-handed sophomore Matt Imhof will replace 10-game winner Kyle Anderson on Saturdays, and sophomore Bryan Granger keeps his Sunday spot after moving into the rotation for the final three weeks of the season. 

Senior Kyle Brueggemann becomes the Tuesday starter after spending most of last season in the weekend rotation. 

Reed Reilly led the bullpen with 54 2⁄3 innings pitched last season, going 5-2 with a save and a 2.80 ERA, but there was a shortage of relief pitchers deemed reliable enough to handle crucial situations. Lee said the team can do a better job holding leads.

“It didn’t just come down to that last weekend of the season,” Wagman said. 

“We knew we had other opportunities during the season we could have capitalized on.”