Cal Poly

Cal Poly baseball travels south to Long Beach State for key Big West Conference series

The Cal Poly baseball team returns to Big West Conference action at 6 p.m. Friday when the Mustangs take on Long Beach State at Blair Field.
The Cal Poly baseball team returns to Big West Conference action at 6 p.m. Friday when the Mustangs take on Long Beach State at Blair Field. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

College baseball can be an unforgiving sport, with midseason slumps often giving way to lost seasons on an individual level.

Fortunately for Cal Poly, John Schukneckt didn’t let a two-week skid derail his breakout senior season. The Mustangs’ senior right fielder overcame a 1-for-24 stretch that spanned the first two weeks of Big West Conference play at just the right time.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Schuknecht was the offensive sparkplug Cal Poly needed during its three-game sweep of nationally ranked UC Santa Barbara last weekend at Baggett Stadium.

Schuknecht was chosen as the Big West Player of the Week for the second time this season after going 6 for 12 with five RBI and three runs against the rival Gauchos.

That sweep propelled the Mustangs (25-14, 7-2 Big West) into first place in the conference standings heading into this weekend’s series at Long Beach State. It also earned them a No. 19 ranking in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll, marking the program’s first national ranking since the 2015 preseason.

Though Cal Poly’s six-game winning streak ended during a 5-4 loss at Cal on Tuesday, there might not be a team in the Big West playing better baseball than the Mustangs.

“I try not to think about it too much, try to take it day by day,” said Schuknecht, who leads the Big West with 34 runs driven in. “Long Beach is a tough place to play, but I’m hoping we can bring the same intensity and focus that we had (against UC Santa Barbara) into that weekend.”

It’s already been a career year for Schuknecht, who anchors the heart of Cal Poly’s batting order from the No. 4 spot.

The Palm Desert native has matched or set career highs in runs (25), doubles (12), RBI (34), walks (10) and stolen bases (six) with 20 games remaining in the regular season.

While Schuknecht’s uptick in production has been a key factor in the Mustangs’ recent hot streak, the senior is not the only source of offense.

Junior utility player Brett Barbier owns a 15-game hitting streak and has reached base safely in all 39 contests this season. His .384 batting average is the third-highest in the Big West.

Freshman shortstop Kyle Marinconz has quietly been one of the most consistent Mustangs offensively. His .310 average and 48 hits both rank second on the team to Barbier, and he’s proven to be a capable leadoff hitter with Alex McKenna out of the lineup recovering from a leg injury.

The steady play of freshman catcher Nick Meyer has been equally impressive.

He’s batting .297 with six doubles and 15 RBI and takes a seven-game hitting streak into the 6 p.m. series opener Friday at Blair Field.

“Another difficult place to play,” head coach Larry Lee said. “Quality program, they do a lot of things well.”

Long Beach State (23-16, 6-6 Big West) has played four conference series to this point and experienced mixed results. The Dirtbags rebounded from a Big West-opening series loss against UC Santa Barbara by winning series over CSUN and UC Irvine.

Last week, Long Beach State dropped two of three against UC Riverside, eventually claiming the series finale to end a four-game losing streak.

Inconsistent offense seems to be a reoccurring issue. The Dirtbags’ .246 team batting average is the lowest in the conference, yet they lead the Big West in stolen bases (31) and rank second in home runs (21).

Junior Garrett Hampson, a two-time all-conference selection, has been the steadying force both offensively and defensively. The former Big West Freshman of the Year leads Long Beach State in nearly every offensive category and has committed only two errors in 114 opportunities at shortstop.

Big West Conference Baseball

Who: Cal Poly (25-14) vs. Long Beach State (23-16)

Where: Blair Field

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Pitching matchup: Kyle Smith (5-3) vs. Chris Mathewson (4-3)

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