He was walking back after class this week when he spotted it.
A black Cal Poly baseball workout shirt weaving through the parking lot.
This guy must be a Mustangs player. Time to say something, right?
“Hey, good job on Tuesday. Good luck against Fullerton this weekend.”
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The wearer of the shirt, senior second baseman Denver Chavez, had no idea who the well-wisher was. And Chavez, the Big West Conference batting leader, isn’t convinced the random supporter realized who he had just approached.
But this weekend’s series against visiting Cal State Fullerton is the big one. That’s easy to recognize.
“It’s happened to a few other guys, too,” Chavez said. “It feels good to get when you get that support.
“This is one that’s been circled on the calendar for a while. We’re definitely excited and can’t wait.”
The No. 4 Titans (32-5, 8-1 Big West) return to Baggett Stadium tonight at 6 for the first of a three-game conference series against the No. 23 Mustangs (25-9, 6-3 Big West) with placement in the standings and what could ultimately be an NCAA Regionals berth on the line.
At least, that’s how it turned out last season.
The Mustangs blew a ninth-inning Sunday lead, and Cal State Fullerton took a 5-4, 10-inning walkoff victory last season to win the series 2-1 and ended up one game ahead of Cal Poly for the regular-season Big West title.
The Mustangs’ bubble burst when their second-place finish was not enough to earn an at-large postseason spot after coming so close to the conference’s automatic bid.
“There’s a lot of games we could have won,” Chavez said, “but for whatever reason, you tend to get up and get pumped up for the Fullerton series, so that’s the one that stings the most.”
Perhaps it’s hard to pick a reason because there are many.
Cal State Fullerton is the premier program in the Big West. The Titans have won four College World Series titles, and they might have their best squad since the 2004 team that went all the way.
Starting pitching is a definite strength. In 187 innings, Cal State Fullerton’s weekend starters have allowed just 15 walks. Friday starter Thomas Eshelman (7-1) has given up just one free pass and sports a 1.09 ERA in 66 innings.
Saturday and Sunday starters Justin Garza (7-0, 2.36 ERA) and Grahamm Wiest (6-2, 2.70 ERA) have just seven walks apiece. Opponents are hitting just .229 against the staff as a whole.
Closer Michael Lorenzen has 12 saves in 13 appearances and has to be considered a frontrunner for Big West Player of the Year. The junior outfielder is also batting .343 with seven home runs and 36 RBI.
Lorenzen leads a lineup with seven returning players that is hitting .288 as a team.
And if Cal Poly was looking for a home-field advantage, let it be known the Titans are 17-1 away from Goodwin Field.
“They’re good at everything,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “You look at their numbers, they’re are off the charts. They don’t give up hits, strike out a lot, they don’t walk people.
“From a position-player standpoint, they have a lot of returners and experience. They do everything well. They’re one of the better teams in the country, if not the best.”
Cal Poly is potent as well, even though the team has hit just .237 and .239 as a team in the past two series against UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii, respectively.
Chavez leads the Big West with a .403 average. He also tops the conference with 33 runs and 56 hits. He ranks second in doubles (11) and on-base percentage (.469). Sophomore right fielder Nick Torres is hitting .328 with six home runs and a team-high 30 RBI.
The Mustangs’ Friday and Saturday starters are formidable, too.
Joey Wagman (7-2, 2.95 ERA) and Matt Imhof (4-1, 1.50 ERA) rank 1-2 in the Big West in strikeouts. Wagman has 72 in 61 innings with Imhof totaling 57 in 59 2⁄3 innings.
Cal Poly will need some wins to keep pace in the conference race in what could be a pivotal series. The Mustangs could be anywhere between one game up for the lead in the Big West standings and five games out of first going into next weekend’s series at Long Beach State.
They key against the Titans for Cal Poly might just be how they handle that pressure, and Wagman is the clubhouse leader in that department.
“The one thing I think gets lost in all this is to go out and have some fun,” Wagman said. “It’s baseball. That’s the reason why we started playing this game in the first place.
“It’s just going out and being ready and executing the gameplan. At that point it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”