When the Cal Poly baseball team went into last weekend’s series against UC Irvine without its top three starting pitchers, it seemed like the unofficial end to an up-and-down season for the young Mustangs.
Instead, Cal Poly rallied around a pair of freshman starters — after 14th-year head coach Larry Lee suspended weekend starters Kyle Smith, Erich Uelmen and Jarred Zill for a violation of team rules — and erupted offensively to take two of three games from the Anteaters.
The Mustangs (29-22, 9-9 Big West) scored 28 runs, thanks in large part to senior John Schuknecht, to remain in fourth place in the conference standings heading into the final road series of the regular season this weekend at UC Riverside.
“We bounced back and battled through some adversity with the starting pitching,” Schuknecht said. “I feel like we’re getting back on track before the season comes to an end.”
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Schuknecht was named the Big West Player of the Week for the third time this season after going a combined 6 for 14 with one double, two home runs, six runs and eight RBI. He also hit his second career grand slam during the Mustangs’ series-clinching victory Sunday and leads the conference with 43 runs driven in.
The senior right fielder said “it was just a little bit disappointing” to hear the weekend staff had been suspended, adding, “they just kind of broke some team policies, but nothing too serious.”
All three pitchers have been reinstated and participated in Cal Poly’s come-from-behind win against Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday. Lee said the normal rotation will be used this weekend against the eighth-place Highlanders (22-27, 8-10 Big West).
Lee said he hopes freshmen Spencer Howard, Craig Colen and junior Justin Calomeni will benefit from last weekend’s starts moving forward. Calomeni, who went 8-2 as a freshman in 2014, was particularly impressive in striking out a career-high 11 batters in the series finale.
“We responded well,” Lee said. “It made us very thin out of the bullpen, but the three pitchers that stepped up to take a starting role threw as well as our normal starters.”
One of Cal Poly’s shortcomings throughout the season has been playing well on the road, Lee said.
Entering the 6 p.m. Friday opener at Riverside Sports Complex, the Mustangs have lost six consecutive Big West road contests and are 8-15 overall in games played away from Baggett Stadium.
Having standout freshman Alex McKenna and sophomore Josh George back in the lineup should help.
McKenna, who started the first 34 games of the season in center field, returned last week after missing 12 straight outings with a leg injury. He hit his team-leading sixth home run of the season and drove in five runs on Friday, and then turned in a three-hit performance and scored twice in the series finale.
George is still dealing with a shoulder injury that forced him to miss 10 consecutive games. He has been used as a designated hitter the past three games, going 4 for 11 with four runs during that time.
“Looking back, that was probably the big difference in us not playing very well on the road in conference during those two weekends,” Lee said. “With them, I think we would’ve been just fine. Without them, we were not a very good offensive team, but it also hurts our defense.”
Junior utility player Brett Barbier, whose .368 batting average ranks fourth in the Big West, said having McKenna and George “just adds a little bit more confidence to the lineup knowing that those guys are back and they’re healthy.”
Lee said playing George in the outfield would be a game-time decision Friday. If he’s limited to the designated-hitter role, Kevin Morgan will likely start in the left field and Barbier will remain at first base.
Lee also plans to stick with freshman Kyle Marinconz at second base and junior Brett Binning at shortstop, a switch he made last Sunday and seemed to like.
“Binning has played well the last couple games at short,” Lee said. “So, hopefully we can ride that out the rest of the season.”
Big West Conference Baseball
Who: Cal Poly (29-22, 9-9) vs. UC Riverside (22-27, 8-10)
When: 6 p.m. Friday; 6 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Riverside Sports Complex
Pitching matchup: Kyle Smith (5-5) vs. Austin Sodders (5-4)