The day after Cal Poly’s last game of the regular season, designated hitter Brian Mundell got together with head coach Larry Lee and started fine-tuning his swing.
That last game was 12 days ago. It’s a long time to be idle, but is it too long?
Not if all that time spent on refinement makes a difference when the top-seeded Mustangs open up the San Luis Obispo Regional against No. 4 Sacramento State tonight at 6 at Baggett Stadium. No. 2 Arizona State will also take on No. 3 Pepperdine at 1 p.m.
“A week off is a blessing in disguise,” Mundell said. “You get to figure out things in your swing that you might not have the time to in season because you have two weeks to figure something out instead of one day.”
Sitting home with a bye last weekend, Cal Poly (45-10) comes into the first Division I home regional in program history well rested and well practiced. The Mustangs got each of their starting pitchers two bullpen sessions this week, and the team spent last weekend playing simulated games to help maintain focus.
But while Cal Poly was scrimmaging, Sacramento State (39-22) was in the thick of its first Western Athletic Conference Tournament title run. The regular-season champion Hornets lost their first game but came back to win four straight to send the program to an NCAA Regional for the first time in Division I program history.
Intersquad scrimmages in an empty stadium can’t possibly simulate that kind of intensity. So, when the Mustangs take the field in this four-team double-elimination tournament, there’s the real possibility they could have lost some of the momentum and confidence gained in their own championship run.
Cal Poly won nine of its final 10 regular-season games to help wrap up its first Big West Conference championship. Some of the sharpness displayed in that run might need to be regained, but Mustangs senior catcher Chris Hoo said with the long layoff, the mood of the team is similar to the start of the season, when Cal Poly stormed out of the gates to win eight of its first nine.
“Your first at-bat, your first ground ball, first fly ball, first pitch, it’s going to be about the mental approach,” Hoo said, “not thinking that you’re rusty but knowing you’ve played the game for so many weeks in a row and having that week off is about resting your body.
“It’ll be like opening day again, and we came out dialed in on opening day.”
None of Cal Poly’s regular starters faced serious injury by the end of the season, but the team still appreciated the time off to recuperate from the grind of a season where the Mustangs won a program record number of games.
“It’s been much-needed for a lot of the guys,” Mundell said. “Going through the long season, you’re going to have aches and pains and nagging injuries that you need to take care of, especially for the pitching staff. It’s been great to give those guys a week off and get their arms in the best condition possible to pitch in the regional.”
For all of Sacramento State’s momentum, the same can’t be said for the Hornets’ rotation.
After pitching 14 innings over three days in the WAC Tournament, hard-throwing ace pitcher Brennan Leitao is being rested tonight and is scheduled to start in the team’s Saturday game. Sacramento State’s No. 2 starter, freshman lefty Sam Long (8-1, 2.68 ERA), takes the mound against Cal Poly ace Matt Imhof (9-4, 2.55 ERA), who was named second-team Louisville Slugger All-America by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper on Thursday.
Imhof isn’t worried about rust.
“Once you get on the mound, everything comes back to you,” Imhof said. “You just want to make sure you have a good feel for your pitches during your bullpen, and I had a good feel for all my pitches.”
The Mustangs follow with Casey Bloomquist (12-1, 1.60 ERA), also a second-team All-America choice, on Saturday and freshman Justin Calomeni (8-2, 3.50 ERA) for a potential third game. The bullpen is fully rested as well.
The Hornets have three players hitting better than .300 coming into the game, but the biggest threat by far is first baseman and WAC Player of the Year Rhys Hoskins, who has hit .330 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI.
Hoo said the plan is not to let Hoskins beat them, and though Cal Poly is wary and respectful of the rest of Sacramento State’s lineup, Lee said scouting reports prove to be less valuable when Imhof takes the mound.
Since Imhof has overpowered hitters to strike out 120 in 90 2⁄3 innings this season, the Mustangs are more inclined to pitch to his strengths in any matchup.
“When Imhof pitches, it’s a lot different calling pitches for him than it is when Casey Bloomquist pitches or one of our other pitchers,” Lee said. “You’re kind of set. You go with Matt’s strengths. The majority of our other pitchers on the team, you attack hitters’ weaknesses.”