Before the college baseball season began more than three months ago, Cal Poly’s coaching staff sat down and had a discussion with Brett Barbier.
The fourth-year junior, who started 36 games at catcher in 2015, was asked to make a position change.
There were few proven commodities among the Mustangs’ 34-man roster at that point, and Barbier was called upon to anchor the midfield at first base. Six players from last year’s team that finished .500 were drafted into the MLB, leaving Barbier and senior John Schuknecht to bring a young team up to speed.
“I was kind of skeptical about it,” Barbier said this week.
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It quickly became clear that 14th-year head coach Larry Lee knew what he was doing all along.
True freshman Nick Meyer has thrived in his role as the every day starter behind the plate, allowing Barbier to aid a rotating middle infield that’s often been inconsistent. The Mustangs have committed 53 errors this season, tied for the most in the Big West Conference.
Without Barbier’s quick instincts and natural fielding ability, that number would be considerably higher.
“It’s a learning process for a lot of those guys, and it comes with the territory,” Barbier said. “I think they’ve responded pretty well as of late.”
Barbier said no Mustang is expected to play perfect baseball, pointing to ex-Cal Poly standout shortstop Peter Van Gansen as a recent example of that fact.
The Big West Defensive Player of the Year who was drafted in the 12th round by the Colorado Rockies committed only four errors in 154 attempts as a junior last spring.
“That’s still not flawless,” Barbier said, “but it was damn near close.”
Patience at the plate
At 22-13 overall and 4-2 in the Big West, Cal Poly has been able to keep pace in the conference with an offense that has perhaps surpassed expectations.
Entering the 6 p.m. series opener Friday against No. 11 UC Santa Barbara, the Mustangs rank second in the Big West in hits (310), runs (179), RBI (162) and triples (10). They also lead the conference in walks drawn (158) by a wide margin.
According to Lee, Cal Poly takes its cues from the ever-patient Barbier.
“When one of your best players is dialed in at the plate,” Lee said, “it allows everybody else to kind of fit in and have a role.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Barbier has reached base safely in all 35 games this season and leads the team in several offensive categories. His team-best .384 batting average is the third-highest mark in the Big West and is currently a 131-point improvement from his sophomore season.
Barbier, a Danville native, brings a 10-game hitting streak into the Blue-Green Rivalry series, a stretch that includes four multi-hit outings. He played a leading role in Cal Poly’s series win at Hawaii last week, going 4 for 12 with four RBI and two runs.
Another strong weekend could potentially propel the Mustangs into the upper-third of the conference standings.
“As long as each guy that’s in the lineup pieces together the right at-bat and makes the right play, we don’t need anyone making the extraordinary play,” Barbier said. “That’s what Coach Lee was kind of preaching to us.”
A valuable asset
In some ways, Lee views Barbier as an extension of his coaching staff.
A combined eight true freshmen have been in the starting lineup at some point this season, five of which have at least 15 starts to their credit.
There have been several high points, such as beating nationally ranked Michigan and UCLA on consecutive days in late February. Of course, there have been a few missteps as well, like the four-game skid earlier this month and the lack of execution defensively.
Through it all, Barbier is counted on to be a valuable veteran presence capable of getting the coaches’ message across.
“That’s been a valuable asset, because you don’t always want it coming out of the coach’s mouth,” Lee said. “You want the players to step up.”
Barbier’s proven he’s willing to do exactly that.
Big West Conference Baseball
Who: Cal Poly vs. No. 11 UC Santa Barbara
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Baggett Stadium
Pitching matchup: Kyle Smith (4-3) vs. Shane Bieber (7-1)