Cal Poly

Mustangs pass major test with baseball series win over UC Irvine

Cal Poly junior right fielder Nick Torres (10) is congratulated by Brian Mundell, left, after Torres hit a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a 10-3 home win over UC Irvine on Sunday to clinch a crucial three-game 
Big West Conference series at Baggett Stadium.
Cal Poly junior right fielder Nick Torres (10) is congratulated by Brian Mundell, left, after Torres hit a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a 10-3 home win over UC Irvine on Sunday to clinch a crucial three-game Big West Conference series at Baggett Stadium.

Within the friendly confines of Baggett Stadium, head coach Larry Lee’s minor calf injury back in March remains about the worst thing that’s happened to the Cal Poly baseball team all season.

Almost everything else has been entirely positive.

The No. 7 Mustangs opened the year with a confidence-boosting sweep of Kansas State. Baseball fever peaked with a midseason series sweep over Big West Conference king Cal State Fullerton. On Sunday, Cal Poly wrapped up a series victory with a 10-3 Mother’s Day win over conference-leading and 23rd-ranked UC Irvine.

There have been two seven-game home winning streaks and just three home losses.

In concert with 27 of the Mustangs’ now program-record 41 wins coming at Baggett, all of the above happened in San Luis Obispo, which is why getting an opportunity to host an NCAA regional is so important to them.

Yes, Sunday’s game was the last regular-season home game, kicked off by a ceremony to honor the team’s four seniors, but if Lee has his way, it won’t be the last time you see his players here on the Central Coast.

“This has been a phenomenal year at home,” said Lee, who long ago shrugged off that calf injury and was waving home runners with full force Sunday. “It’s just a great place to play, and it suits our team. We like to swing the bat. It’s a great surface. It’s fast, and our pitchers are used to it. Even though it’s an offensive ballpark, they perform well at this place.

“It’s comfort level. That’s why it’s so important for us to host a regional here, and up to this point, we’ve done an awful lot to prove our case.”

Four games remain in the regular season, and though Cal Poly might have a hard argument to be a top-eight national seed, Baggett looks to be in good shape to be one of the 16 regional host sites.

According to the polls, the Mustangs are a near-consensus top-10 team. Respected RPI projectors and had Cal Poly 16th and 17th on Sunday evening.

Cal Poly (41-10, 16-5 Big West) has won 12 of its 13 series this season. A conference crown could be the only missing line on the résumé.

The Mustangs still trail the Anteaters (34-16, 15-3 Big West) by half a game in the Big West.

Cal Poly has only next week’s three-game series at Cal State Northridge left in conference play.

UC Irvine has two more conference series. So, the Mustangs will need the Anteaters to lose at least two of their remaining six conference games to get a piece of their first Big West title.

Universally, players and coaches said their lone focus was on the final nonconference game at St. Mary’s on Tuesday.

They also feel as if they’ve done everything to earn a home regional.

“Completely,” junior right fielder Nick Torres said. “We’ve played well all year long. … Not only have we won a lot of games, but we’ve shown our dominance over a lot of teams that were picked to finish high this year.”

Dominance certainly characterized Sunday’s victory.

After pitching duels led to a shortage of scoring chances in the first two games of the series, both one-run victories for either team, Cal Poly came out swinging.

The Mustangs had two-run rallies in each of the first five innings, staking themselves to a 10-0 lead heading into the sixth.

Torres was 3 for 5 with his fifth home run of the season and three RBI. Zack Zehner was 2 for 4 with a triple and two RBI. John Schuknecht was 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI.

Seniors came up as big as anyone, too. Third baseman Jimmy Allen was 2 for 5 with a double, and senior catcher Chris Hoo was 3 for 5 with a triple and two RBI.

With eight of the 10 runs coming with two out, Cal Poly was clutch, which hadn’t exactly been the case recently.

“That’s been a trend lately,” Torres said. “We’re getting a lot of hits in games and not too many runs. We’re getting ourselves in good positions to score. We’re just not coming through with the big hit. That’s just guys having a lot of confidence in themselves and knowing the team does, too.”

After totaling just five hits in the first two games of the series, UC Irvine had 12 Sunday, but by the time the Anteaters finally scored a run on Cal Poly starter Casey Bloomquist, the game was well in hand.

Bloomquist (11-1) allowed two runs in the sixth and gave up five hits and two walks while striking out two. His ERA actually rose slightly, to 1.52.

Reliever Taylor Chris came on in the seventh to pitch two scoreless innings and lowering his season ERA to 0.78 despite allowing four hits. Closer Reed Reilly finished off the game, giving up three hits and a run in the ninth but striking out four.

The other two seniors, Tim Wise and Michael Hoo, made pinch-hit appearances, and Allen and Chris Hoo were removed to rousing ovations late in the ninth inning.

“We had a good feeling today after winning yesterday,” Chris Hoo said. “Everyone was having fun in the locker room, stretching. I think a lot of the older guys, my brother, Jimmy, Tim, we brought a lot of energy to the field. Because it’s our last home game, we were all fired up. Everyone wanted to do well for their moms. We all just wanted to end on a good note here. We came out firing, and it was awesome.”