Cal Poly baseball coach Larry Lee has learned to manage expectations with incoming freshmen over the course of his 30-year career.
Fall practices and intrasquad scrimmages give coaches an idea of what the newcomers will bring. Yet, in the months leading up to the season, there’s plenty of uncertainty.
“Until you start playing real games,” Lee said, “you have no idea of what you have.”
Count true freshman catcher Nick Meyer among the pleasant surprises this spring on a team made up largely of underclassmen.
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Marred by injuries over the past month, the Mustangs (26-17) have adjusted their lineup on the fly in an attempt to stay in the hunt for a Big West Conference title.
That’s meant moving junior utility player Brett Barbier — a 36-game starter at catcher in 2015 — from first base, to left field and, most recently, to center.
For the 19-year-old Meyer, the opportunity to take over as the every-day catcher and provide leadership behind the plate arrived a little sooner than he expected.
“Coming in and just having to be a leader and embrace that role was kind of different for me in a way,” Meyer said. “I didn’t think, being a freshman, I’m going to have to get into guys or be a leader of the team.”
A combination of pure physical talent and lack of depth at the position has resulted in Meyer starting 36 games this season. He helps manage a starting rotation that features three sophomores in Kyle Smith (5-4), Erich Uelmen (5-1) and Jarred Zill (4-2), along with a continually changing bullpen.
Perhaps Meyer’s most impressive attribute has been the arm strength and timing that’s helped him throw out 16 would-be base stealers, the fourth-most in the Big West. He’s also picked off a conference-leading 10 other runners to help a defensive unit that’s committed 61 errors.
Lee credits Meyer’s unusually high baseball IQ, quick instincts and short memory as the reasons he’s been successful picking runners off.
“He’s not afraid to throw the ball away,” Lee said. “You have to be that way as a baseball player. Do something and live with the consequences.”
It didn’t take long for Cal Poly’s coaching staff to get a sense of what Meyer could consistently bring defensively.
The surprise, Lee said, has been how productive he’s been offensively.
Meyer’s .271 batting average is sixth on the team, though he’s raised that number to .308 in conference play and hit safely in 10 of 12 Big West games.
He took an eight-game hitting streak into the Long Beach State series last week but was held without a hit during Saturday’s game, and the Mustangs were swept for the first time this spring.
Like most young players, Meyer said catching up to the college-level pitching has been the biggest adjustment from his prep days at Santa Margarita Catholic High in Mission Viejo.
There’s also pressure to limit passed balls and carry on the strong tradition left by recent graduate Chris Hoo, the 2014 Rawlings Gold Glove winner who committed one error in 58 games for the Mustangs’ NCAA regional team.
“I just wanted to show the coaches that I can be a leader behind the plate and I was capable of handling that role,” Meyer said. “I was coming in with the mindset that I was going to be ‘the guy,’ and I’m glad I’m behind there so we can put Brett somewhere else because he’s a big part of our lineup.”
Embracing the leadership role is nothing new for Meyer, who helped Santa Margarita Catholic win the CIF-Southern Section Division I championship at Dodger Stadium as a junior in 2014. He drove in one run and scored another in the Eagles’ 3-1 victory over Foothill.
With that championship pedigree, Meyer understands Lee’s consistent message of playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
“That’s how he’s wired, and not everybody is wired that way,” Lee said.
A gritty effort
The proverbial injury bug has bitten Cal Poly hard in recent weeks.
Starting outfielders Alex McKenna and Josh George are both sidelined with significant injuries, and Lee said they might not return until the UC Irvine series in two weeks, if at all.
Senior right fielder John Schuknecht overcame a leg injury in early April and currently leads the Big West with 35 RBI.
When the Mustangs begin a three-game series against CSUN at 3 p.m. Friday, Lee will only have five position players available off the bench.
“We’re out of options,” the 14th-year head coach said.
Yet, the ever-changing personnel led Cal Poly to an unexpected source of leadership and a breakout season for Meyer.
“He just gets ready for each game,” Lee said. “He’s going to blossom into an elite college catcher.”
Big West Conference Baseball
Who: Cal Poly (26-17, 7-5) vs. CSUN (25-16, 4-11)
When: 3 p.m. Friday
Where: Matador Field
Pitching matchup: Kyle Smith (5-4) vs. Angel Rodriguez (4-4)