While the Cal Poly baseball team is experiencing unprecedented highs, it’s somewhat sobering to consider one fact.
Half of the No. 4 Mustangs’ starts on the mound are in the hands of two freshmen, pitchers who are experiencing typical first-year ups and downs as they adjust to the college level.
For now, Cal Poly (27-5) ranks as one of the top teams in the country, and to maintain that position, the Mustangs need Justin Calomeni, who earned a 6-2 victory over Saint Mary’s on Tuesday, and Slater Lee, who’ll start Saturday at Hawaii, to turn the corner.
“As freshmen, sometimes you throw them into the fire a little sooner than you would like,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said, “but that’s just where we’re at with our pitching staff, and they’ve both done extremely well at times.
“They’re two ingredients for us to continue to win. We’re not going in any other direction. They’re two of the four starts each week.”
Calomeni (6-1, 3.80 ERA) bounced back to shut down the Gaels after a rough start in a walk-off victory over UC Santa Barbara on Saturday where he allowed five runs on 11 hits in 3 1⁄3 innings.
At Baggett Stadium on Tuesday, Calomeni allowed one run on four hits and no walks and struck out four in five innings. The freshmen know they’re shouldering much responsibility. The key is maintaining confidence as team expectations continue to climb.
“I just try not to think too much about it,” Calomeni said, “just sort of realize that they’re putting us out there because they know we’re going to get the job done, not just because they don’t have any other options. Just believing in our abilities gives us that confidence to go out there and beat anyone.”
Offensively against Saint Mary’s, Peter Van Gansen walked twice with the bases loaded to finish 1 for 1 with three RBI, and Mark Mathias, Jordan Ellis, Nick Torres and Jimmy Allen collected two hits apiece.
Slater Lee (2-1, 5.88 ERA) pitched a scoreless inning of relief, allowing one hit while striking out one as he readies for a return to the weekend rotation.
Lee opened the season to rave reviews after dominant starts against Kansas State and UCLA. He threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout against the Bruins and allowed just one run in his first 15 1⁄3 collegiate innings.
Then as suddenly as he burst on the scene, the former Carlsbad High standout had two nightmare outings and was moved into the midweek role, swapping with Calomeni.
“He was having so much success, our team was having so much success, he changed his mental approach to games,” Larry Lee said, “and I think he’s back to simplifying things and just going out there and executing pitches.”
With some mental conditioning from pitching coach Thomas Eager, Slater Lee seems now to be back on track after a 6-1 victory over CSU Bakersfield last week where he allowed one run on five hits while striking out six in 6 1⁄3 innings.
“One of the things coach Eager preaches and coach Lee preaches is having confidence,” Slater Lee said. “Whenever you’re on the mound, whether you’re a freshman, whatever year you are, you’ve prepared to get to this point, and you’re good enough to obviously be here.
“You just got to pitch with confidence knowing you belong. It’s more mental than physical out there on the mound. It’s just knowing you can pitch to these hitters.”
That’s something Lee certainly can do, mixing three pitches to hitters on both sides of the plate when he’s at his best.
Calomeni is still developing his third pitch, a change-up, but he throws a fastball topping out in the low-90s, and a slider that’s about 8- to 10-mph slower with good bite.
Coming into the season, Lee and Calomeni were fighting for the final spot in the weekend rotation behind established starters Matt Imhof and Casey Bloomquist.
Lee originally won out and resumes the weekend role this week, but after twice trading places, the competition between two roommates who’ve grown to become close friends has not caused friction.
“You would think maybe there’s a little tension,” Calomeni said, “but there’s none of that. We always pull for each other. Whatever role we’re in, as long as we win, that’s what matters.”