If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
The Cal Poly baseball team got a second straight ideal outing from a starting pitcher. The Mustangs also avoided the costly fielding errors that have dogged them all season.
But as All-America junior Mark Mathias said after Friday’s shutout loss, Cal Poly has to score to win, and it didn’t happen in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Sacramento State.
There’s some sense that Cal Poly (5-11) is beginning to turn around what has been a miserable season.
Freshman Kyle Smith had the most effective outing of his career, and despite the Hornets (10-7) racking up 11 hits by game’s end, they only plated a pair of runs, neither of which was unearned.
“I feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” said Smith, whose only blemish was a first-inning RBI groundout after a one-out triple. “I definitely feel like we have some momentum going for tomorrow. We’re definitely making good progress. It’s going to start coming together, and we’re going to start stringing together a lot of wins.”
Smith allowed just the single run on six hits and a walk while striking out four in seven innings. It was his longest outing of three starts this year and the fewest number of runs he’s allowed in those starts.
Smith lowered his season ERA from 5.28 to 4.03, and Cal Poly pushed its team ERA in the four-game series against Sacramento State down to 1.33.
Still, the Mustangs trail 2-1 going into today’s 1 p.m. series finale, and the problem is at the plate.
After losing to Cal Poly in the Mustangs’ opening game of the San Luis Obispo NCAA Regional last May, Hornets starter Sam Long came back to Baggett Stadium to pitch the complete game. He gave up just five hits and no walks while striking out five.
Long attacked the strike zone early and kept Cal Poly off balance with his change-up. The Hornets defense played flawlessly behind him, and the Mustangs had to earn everything they got, which wasn’t much.
“That’s key,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “They play good defense, they throw strikes and they don’t beat themselves. We’re kind of the polar opposite. We give teams extra chances.”
The Mustangs’ best chance to score came in the bottom of the sixth when Mathias led off with a single and advanced to third on a pair of groundouts. Zack Zehner struck out swinging to end the threat.
Although Mathias has gotten a hit in every game he’s played since returning from shoulder surgery — a nine-game streak — Cal Poly has been shut out in three of the past four games at home, which has left the Mustangs searching for answers.
“We’re not much of a running team, so getting the wheels rolling with hit-and-run plays, sacrificing guys over,” Mathias said. “Our thing is getting leadoff guys on for each innings.
“I think we’re popping up a little bit too much. We need to try to stay more short and have a line-drive-into-the-dirt mentality.”
Mathias and junior shortstop Peter Van Gansen are both hitting better than .400, but aside from them, only first baseman Tommy Pluschkell (.333) was hitting better than .281. At least four regulars are hitting lower than .200.
Some relief is on the way today, when first baseman Brian Mundell is expected to make his return to the starting lineup to play in the field for the first time since tweaking his hamstring three weeks ago, one game before Mathias made his season debut.
It will be the first time Mundell — who’s hitting .364 — and Mathias have started together all season, and Cal Poly is hoping having both can make a big difference.
“Mathias and Mundell are two of the best hitters on the West Coast,” Lee said, “We need both of those guys in the lineup, and when you have guys that are capable of accepting the responsibility of being the main guys in the offensive lineup, then it allows the other players to have their roles be comfortable and contribute in a lesser way.”
The Mustangs will send another freshman starter to the mound today. Used only in relief to this point, Michael Gomez will make his first collegiate start after going 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA and eight strikeouts in 11 innings out of the bullpen.
The Mustangs are hoping to get another solid pitching outing and show more progression at the plate as Big West Conference play approaches.
Cal Poly will host USC for a three-game series next weekend before visiting Oregon State the following week. From there, the Mustangs open conference play at Cal State Fullerton.
The only chance Cal Poly has to make its third straight postseason appearance is to go on a banner roll in the Big West. To do that, they’ll have to stick together.
“After we broke apart,” Mathias said, “I got all the guys together and I said, ‘Hey, there’s going to be days where our hitting’s off, we’re not going to score any runs, and there’s going to be days when our pitching is going to give up a ton of runs.’ I just told them, we win as a team; we lose as a team. Just no pointing fingers at offense or pitching.”