Few knew better than Jordan Ellis how the swirling winds at Baggett Stadium could fool with the trajectory of a fly ball.
So, when the Cal Poly centerfielder lifted a first-pitch fastball high into the air with Sunday’s game against UC Riverside on the line, he didn’t even bother to check where it landed.
“At that point,” Ellis said, “I’m just running the whole time trying to get to third. We wanted that game-winning run. So, it’s important to be on third for anything like that hit.
“I just heard the cheers, so I knew he didn’t catch it, and I was there.”
As the wind toyed will Ellis’ fly up in the air, it twirled Highlanders centerfielder Devyn Bolasky around as he tracked it, and his lunging catch attempt ended with the ball bouncing to the grass.
Ellis’ two-out, ninth-inning triple scored Denver Chavez for the tying run, and Brian Mundell plated Ellis by legging out a chopper to the hole in short to seal the 4-3 victory and a needed three-game sweep over UC Riverside (18-25, 7-11 Big West Conference).
It was the third walk-off win of the season for Cal Poly (31-14, 11-7 Big West), which was 0-11 when trailing after eight innings this year. The Mustangs were just 2-12 when trailing after six with one of those victories coming in Friday’s 4-1 win.
This one, however, was far more dramatic.
Chavez was one pitch away from striking out to end the game but drew a bases-loaded walk against Highlanders closer Kevin Frank.
A hard-throwing right-hander who was unbeaten (4-0) this season with a 1.45 ERA coming in, Frank allowed a single to Mundell when he entered the game with two out in the seventh and was perfect over the next 12⁄3 innings.
Then came Ellis, who was 2 for 5 to extend his hitting streak to 13 games.
“We were talking earlier,” Mundell said, “right before his at-bat, and I was telling him that he’s going to get a first-pitch fastball, and I said, ‘What are you going to do first-pitch fastball?’ And Ellis said, ‘I’m going to hit a double.’ A triple is even better. So, that’s good for him.”
Mundell was 3 for 5 with his lone RBI coming on his second walk-off hit of the season. The freshman designated hitter had a game-tying solo home run in the seventh inning of Friday’s victory and also had a game-winning solo home run in the 10th inning of a 6-5 victory over San Jose State on March 12.
With Cal Poly reeling from a three-game losing streak coming into the series and aware of its NCAA regional at-large hopes hinging on the rest of the season, the conference sweep was a welcome balm with crucial series against UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge in the coming weeks.
“You need a game or two like that during the course of the year to kind of get you continuing in the right direction,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said.
Early on, Cal Poly had a 2-0 lead.
First baseman Tommy Pluschkell drove in a run with a fielder’s choice in the second and a sacrifice bunt in the fourth.
But Mustangs starter Bryan Granger gave up back-to-back doubles to Bolasky and Joe Chavez to open the fifth and finished with a no-decision after reliever Michael Dingilian allowed Chavez to score on a two-out double by Francisco Tellez.
Dingilian allowed a leadoff triple in the fifth and was charged with the go-ahead run when the inherited runner scored from third against reliever Michael Holback on a fielder’s choice.
Holback (3-1, 3.49 ERA) ended up earning the win, allowing three hits and striking out four in four scoreless innings to end the game and cap a weekend of solid pitching by Cal Poly.
“Same recipe that we’ve used all year,” Lee said. “We’ve been really good out of the bullpen. All of our games are close. We don’t have the ability to put up a lot of runs and blow everybody out. That’s why pitching is the biggest percentage by far of baseball, and when you can pitch, you can be in every ballgame and you find ways like today to win.”
The Mustangs moved into a third-place tie with UC Irvine (11-7 Big West), behind conference-leading Cal State Fullerton (15-3 Big West) and Cal State Northridge (14-4 Big West).
Since Cal Poly is unlikely to overtake the Titans for the Big West title and the conference’s automatic postseason berth, placement within the conference is less important than RPI ranking and overall win total.
The Mustangs are eyeing the 40-win plateau and must win nine of their final 11 games to get there.
“Last year, we thought we had a good shot at making regionals,” Ellis said. “We were 36-20. Good record, but they still didn’t select us. So, it just shows that we’re that much of an underdog. We need to get every win we can. Hopefully, we hit that 40 mark, and I don’t see how they couldn’t select us.”