LOS ANGELES — Cal Poly pitcher Joey Wagman was still in high school back in Danville. Mustangs second baseman Denver Chavez was redshirting in San Luis Obispo.
Both were following from afar the Cal Poly baseball program’s first foray into an NCAA Division I regional in Tempe, Ariz., in 2009 with the idea that postseason berths would become a regular occurrence for the Mustangs.
“It was cool knowing that they were in a regional and they were worthy of that kind of spot,” said Wagman, who pitched for Monte Vista High along with three other Division I signees. “I remember watching the games on GameTracker and thinking this is something I wanted to be a part of.”
Chavez hardly felt a part of the third-place Big West Conference team that finished the regular season 37-19 and got swept out of the regional by Oral Roberts and Kent State.
Not only was he redshirting, he was injured, too.
He never imagined it would take four more years to get his chance at a regional.
“Actually, I thought that after that it was going to roll,” Chavez said, “and we were going to be able to go to more regionals. It’s taken a while, but I’m just glad to be a part of it now. This team’s really deserving of it.”
The current edition of the Mustangs (39-17) earned the No. 2 seed in the Los Angeles Regional and will meet West Coast Conference Tournament champion San Diego (35-23) at 2 p.m. today at Jackie Robinson Stadium in a double-elimination tournament that also features Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State (31-29) and host UCLA (39-17).
Whichever emerges victorious will face the winner of the Fullerton Regional, likely heavily favored host and No. 5 national seed Cal State Fullerton.
And compared to that 2009 team, Cal Poly has a much better chance of becoming the first in Division I program history to reach a Super Regional. Last year’s 36-win team never got a chance to prove what it could do in the postseason after being left out of the field.
“This team is much better pitching-wise,” 11th-year Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “In my mind, that’s the main reason we’ve won so many games, a select group of pitchers that have really performed well for us. We were a better hitting team and base-running team in ’09. Last year, we were a much better hitting team and much better defensive team.”
In 2009, Cal Poly lost top pitching prospect Steven Fishback to a season-ending shoulder surgery before playing a game, and the staff allowed nearly six earned runs per game.
The offense compensated with a dominant year by Adam Buschini, who had 11 home runs, 61 RBI and a program record .422 batting average, but by the time the regional rolled around, freshman All-American second baseman Matt Jensen was lost to a broken collarbone.
Now a senior, Wagman tied Garrett Olson’s single-season program victories mark with a 12-3 record and 3.11 ERA. Sophomore Saturday starter Matt Imhof is 7-3 with a 2.52 ERA, and sophomore closer Reed Reilly has 14 saves and 2.05 ERA.
Junior reliever Michael Holback (3-1, 3.66 ERA) has been effective in long relief, and sophomore lefty Taylor Chris has been effective in short stints.
By the end of the regular season, freshman Casey Bloomquist (6-2, 4.78 ERA) emerged as a quality third starter, and the staff posted a 3.36 ERA.
This year, the Mustangs have scored nearly 200 fewer runs than the 2009 team, but four starters are hitting better than .300 and two more have at least 34 RBI.
Sophomore rightfielder Nick Torres has been the most consistent threat. Batting .336, Torres has a conference-high 19 doubles and leads Cal Poly with 47 RBI, third-best in the Big West.
Chavez, a Santa Barbara High product, has been the prototypical table-setter. The Big West leader in hits is second in the conference with a .362 batting average and his 53 runs lead the Big West.
Sophomore centerfielder and No. 2 hitter Jordan Ellis has had a breakout season, batting .329 and tying for the conference lead with six triples, and freshman designated hitter Brian Mundell is tied for the Big West lead with 10 home runs.
The true test, however, will be whether this Cal Poly team can avoid going 0-2 like it did in 2009.
The Mustangs have lost the first two games of a weekend series just once all season, a 2-1 road series loss to at-large regional qualifier UC Santa Barbara in early April.
“It’s definitely going to be huge to win the first two games,” Torres said.
“That makes it a lot easier on us, but in a format like this or in a Super Regional, we like our chances a lot because in a weekend series, we feel like we can beat anybody, especially two out of three.”