Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee seldom knows what to expect from his team each season, even this one which sits at 31-5 with an RPI of 12, but he knows one thing: to win the Big West, you have to get through Cal State Fullerton first.
There's no denying the Titans have had total control over the Big West the past few seasons. When the Titans lost last weekend's series at UC Santa Barbara, it was the first time since UC Riverside in 2012 that they lost a conference series. Now, we're all expecting the Titans to lose two-straight Big West series? Keeping coach Rick Vanderhook's Titans from bouncing back this weekend at home could prove to be a difficult chore, but this elite Cal Poly club seems more than able to handle the challenge.
“Cal State Fullerton is Cal State Fullerton. If you're going to win the Big West, you've got to get through those guys. They still have the best pitching in this league,” Lee said. “I think, collectively, we've got a really nice group of players who are clicking and meshing well together enough to come out on the right end of things at the end of the year, but there's a long way to go and we've got some high quality teams ahead of us on the schedule.”
Watching Cal Poly's ascension on the national stage so far this spring has been a treat. The Mustangs welcomed back several key cogs coming into the season, and were picked to finish just behind the Titans in the Big West standings. The Mustangs were not ranked in the Perfect Game Preseason College Top 25, but the potential to be an elite team was there, with the offense serving as somewhat of a question mark.
Casey Bloomquist has been Cal Poly's most consistent starter this spring. (Cal Poly photo)
That question mark is no more. Though much of the talk surrounding the Mustangs on the national stage is about outstanding lefthanded ace pitcher Matt Imhof, the offense has quietly tallied some impressive numbers, while causing headaches for opposing teams. For instance, the Mustangs are hitting .301 as a team this season, an impressive increase over the .279 average they put together last season. This year's unit also has been much more mature and selective with pitches, as evidenced by a .391 on-base percentage as opposed to the .344 mark they tallied last season.
“Winning is very contagious and our players are just big-time competitors. I really like how this offensive lineup flows one thru nine out there,” Lee said. “Our bottom three hitters have OBP's over .400, and that enables us to score runs at any spot in the lineup. This is a versatile lineup, and that's a good characteristic to have at this level.”
Cal Poly's top two returning hitters in outfielder Nick Torres and designated hitter Brian Mundell are having expected, productive, campaigns with Torres hitting .331 with four homers and 32 RBIs, and Mundell carrying a .325 average, four homers and four RBIs. But the big key to this offense is the rise of hitters such as second baseman Mark Mathias and catcher Chris Hoo.
Mathias, a sophomore, is an intriguing hitter. He originally began the season near the bottom of the Cal Poly batting order, but now serves as a versatile leadoff hitter. The 6-foot, 185-pounder, is hitting .392 with 26 RBIs and is 11-for-12 in stolen bases this season. He's also reached base in 25 of the last 26 games, hitting .453 during that time. Hoo, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound, senior might be the best nine-hole hitter in the country with a .306 batting and .419 OBP, along with an impressive ability for clutch hits.
“We moved Mark to the leadoff spot because he was our hottest hitter and a high OBP guy. He's continued to stay strong out there and is giving us an ability to score runs early in the game,” Lee said. “As for Chris, he might be a nine-hole hitter, but he's one of those guys that when he goes to the plate, you always expect something to happen. When he drives in runs, they're meaningful runs. He's our nine-hole hitter and he leads the team in doubles. That's how valuable he is for us.”
Cal Poly's balance doesn't stop there. Though Lee would like to see the starting rotation – particularly, freshman righthanded pitcher Slater Lee – be more consistent, he's happy with how the rotation is progressing. It's always important to have a legitimate, good, four-man rotation for postseason purposes, and the Mustangs have that with Imhof, Lee, 6-foot-3, 180-pound, sophomore righthanded pitcher Casey Bloomquist and midweek starter and freshman righty Justin Calomeni.
“All of our guys continue to make strides from a stuff standpoint, but I do want to see some more consistent starts down the stretch,” he said. “I also would like to see us be able to use a couple more consistent arms out of the bullpen, but overall, we're in good shape.”
Bloomquist is earning the most recognition from the Cal Poly staff entering the Fullerton series. Bloomquist is Cal Poly's most consistent starting pitcher with a 1.58 ERA in 57 innings, along with 45 strikeouts and 10 walks. The talented righty has greatly improved his fastball command, while he possesses a plus changeup and always improving slider. Meanwhile, Imhof, ranked as our No. 15 college prospect, continues to do his thing with a 2.07 ERA in 61 innings, along with 88 strikeouts and 22 walks. Imhof, who sits 88-92 with his fastball, continues to refine all of his pitches.
Should the Mustangs reach their goal of the College World Series in June, that would mean Slater Lee established consistency. Lee made a big splash earlier this season when he struck out seven, walked one and allowed just two hits in a complete game shutout win over UCLA. However, he's been plagued by inconsistency at times and has a 5.45 ERA in 38 innings, along with 28 strikeouts and 20 walks. Lee, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, won't overwhelm hitters with his mid-80s fastball, but he possesses a plus changeup and good command of four pitches, including a slider.
“The thing about Bloomquist is he just does a great job of throwing strikes and making sure the ball doesn't leave the yard at any point. Matt is realizing he's as good as anyone in the country, but the real key is Slater,” he said. “We need him to get better in that role as our starting pitcher in the second game of a series. I think after the UCLA series, he might've started reading the headlines a little bit, but he's also dealt with some bad weather during some of those bad stretches, too.”
Should the starting rotation fail at any point, the Mustangs always feel comfortable with lefthanded pitcher Taylor Chris and righthanders Reed Reilly and Danny Zardona leading the charge out of the bullpen. That combination to go with the rotation and a productive offensive lineup has been the recipe for success, an accomplishment that now has Cal Poly officials bringing in 738 extra seats to Baggett Stadium for this weekend's Cal State Fullerton series, and presumably, the NCAA postseason.
The Big West might just have a new sheriff in town.
SERIES TO WATCH
North Carolina at No. 1 Virginia: Fresh off a home series win over Wake Forest, the Tar Heels hit the road this weekend for a series that could greatly improve their postseason profile with a couple of wins. The good news is they have that opportunity. The bad news? They have to beat Virginia to do it. The Cavaliers have been playing a very nice brand of baseball the past few weeks with lefthanded sophomore pitcher Nathan Kirby getting on a roll with a 1.23 ERA in 58 2/3 innings, along with 61 strikeouts and 13 walks. Virginia is red-hot and should take care of business at home. – THE PICK: Virginia
Cal State Fullerton at No. 3 Cal Poly: The Titans haven't been very good as of late, but with righthanded sophomore pitcher Justin Garza returning to the mound this weekend against the Mustangs, they hope to get on a roll. Garza has a 2.60 ERA in 27 2/3 innings, along with 26 strikeouts and four walks. The big key to the weekend for the Titans is the offense, which must find a way to score some runs against a solid Cal Poly rotation that includes All-American Matt Imhof, Casey Bloomquist and Slater Lee. – THE PICK: Cal Poly
No. 4 Florida State at Wake Forest: The Seminoles haven't been quite as crisp without lefthanded pitcher Brandon Leibrandt in the starting rotation, but hope to find a way to bounce back from that Georgia Tech series loss on the road this weekend. FSU outfielder DJ Stewart continues to have a monster campaign, hitting an impressive .374 with 13 doubles, seven homers and 30 RBIs, while reliever Gage Smith has been a stalwart out of the pen with a 1.17 ERA in 24 appearances and 38 1/3 innings. – THE PICK: Florida State
No. 9 South Carolina at Auburn: Chad Holbrook said it best to me earlier this week: “We're just trying to keep our heads above water right now.” The reason why? The Gamecocks have been dealing with some serious injuries, from Joey Pankake to Max Schrock to Marcus Mooney's concussion, to finally, hard-nosed catcher Grayson Greiner playing through a painfully sore thumb. Hoping to earn a national seed in the NCAA postseason, the Gamecocks need to hit the road and take care of Auburn this weekend. The Tigers, by the way, have one of the premier freshmen in righthanded pitcher Keegan Thompson, who's been stellar with a 1.72 ERA in 62 2/3 innings, along with 51 strikeouts and 15 walks. – THE PICK: Auburn
TCU at No. 6 Texas: The Horned Frogs began the season struggling immensely at the plate, but have gradually gotten better and more productive with each week. Boomer White is a spark plug with a .378 batting average, two homers and 27 RBIs, while on the mound, junior lefthanded pitcher Brandon Finnegan has a 1.76 ERA in 61 1/3 innings, along with 84 strikeouts and 17 walks. As for the Longhorns, the offense has been much more productive the past few weeks, with the team batting average up to .268 and outfielder Mark Payton leading the way with a .348 average, a home run and 26 RBIs. – THE PICK: Texas
No. 8 LSU at No. 13 Ole Miss: After an emotional road series win over rival Mississippi State last weekend, the Rebels return home this weekend to face yet another rival, the LSU Tigers. LSU has the nation's elite righthanded pitcher in Aaron Nola, while Ole Miss righty Chris Ellis, lefty Christian Trent and another righty, Sam Smith, formulate a very solid rotation for Mike Bianco's club. Ole Miss has the overall edge on the mound, and its offensive typically is more productive. Given this series is at home for the Rebels, those things should play into their favor this weekend. – THE PICK: Mississippi
Georgia at No. 18 Florida: It's only the first year of the Scott Stricklin era and we're already talking about the Bulldogs potentially shaking up the SEC hierarchy with a trip to the NCAA postseason. Georgia has gotten nice boosts from veteran outfielder Hunter Cole, who's hitting .322 with two homers and 23 RBIs, and freshman righthanded pitcher Robert Tyler, who has a 1.56 ERA in 52 innings, along with 43 strikeouts and 12 walks. Meanwhile, the Gators have left strong impressions the past couple of weeks, especially last weekend with a road series win over South Carolina. Florida freshman righthanded pitcher Logan Shore continues to draw rave reviews with good overall stuff to go with his 89-92 fastball. Shore has a 1.67 ERA in 54 innings, along with 33 strikeouts and 11 walks. – THE PICK: Florida
No. 7 Louisville at UCF: While we've all talked about Louisville and Houston out of the American Athletic Conference this season, how about Terry Rooney's Knights? Sure, the Knights began the season in less than stellar fashion, but they're red-hot and have an excellent ace pitcher in lefthanded hurler Eric Skoglund, who sits 88-92 with his fastball and has a 1.88 ERA in 67 innings, along with 56 strikeouts and 16 walks. As for the Cards, the offense came up with some clutch hits last weekend against the Cougars, but still are showcased by a pitching staff that includes rising sophomore Kyle Funkhouser. – THE PICK: Louisville
Kansas at Oklahoma State: This could be an important series for both teams in the grand scheme of the NCAA postseason landscape. The Jayhawks have been good for much of the season, but are in need of a marquee conference series win with a 6-6 league record. It's integral that guys like ace starting pitcher Frank Duncan have strong weekends. Duncan has a 1.53 ERA in 70 2/3 innings, along with 56 strikeouts and eight walks. As for the Pokes, they're coming off a huge road series win over West Virginia, and still are riding high even after a midweek loss to rival Oklahoma. Gage Green and Zach Fish are giving the Cowboys good, powerful, boosts this spring with Green hitting .317 with nine doubles and two homers, while the physical Fish is hitting .316 with 10 doubles, six homers and 27 RBIs. – THE PICK: Oklahoma State
No. 19 Vanderbilt at Arkansas: Speaking of big series in the SEC this weekend, both of these clubs would like to make some sort of statement. Vandy dropped a surprising home series to Texas A&M last weekend and needs junior righthanded pitcher Tyler Beede to get back on track. Beede allowed seven runs (four earned) on nine hits in five innings against the Aggies, and for the year, now has a 3.23 ERA in 53 innings, along with 56 strikeouts and 20 walks. As for the Hogs, they dropped a tough series at LSU last weekend, but impressed me by finishing the weekend on a positive note. Pitching is a big key to the weekend and the Razorbacks have plenty of it with righthanded pitcher Chris Oliver tallying a 2.41 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, along with 36 strikeouts and 18 walks. – THE PICK: Arkansas
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT …
Though a vast majority of our focus is on college baseball at the Division I level, here's a fun video from the Division III ranks in a game between Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and Albion College. Calvin had the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning (seven-inning game), the score tied, when Calvin junior Grant Van Putten stole home as the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher in one of the more bizarre finishes I've seen. Here's the video:
• Alabama caught a break earlier this week when it comes to leading hitter Austen Smith. Smith, who's hitting .355 with four homers and 26 RBIs, took a ball off his wrist last weekend against Auburn. The initial prognosis didn't look good, but Smith underwent tests earlier this week, and the official diagnosis is a bone bruise. The Crimson Tide won't rush Smith back into action, but coach Mitch Gaspard continues to list him day-to-day.
• UCLA has thoroughly enjoyed the services of righthanded pitcher James Kaprielian in the weekend rotation this season, as he has a 2.20 ERA in 61 1/3 innings, along with 61 strikeouts and 16 walks. Kaprielian, though, has an even busier summer ahead, as he was announced this week as a member of the USA Collegiate National Team. On a more negative note, Bruins righthanded reliever David Berg, an All-American, has a strained right bicep, while talented outfielder Brian Carroll has a bruised rotator cuff and is questionable for the weekend series against Utah.
• UC Santa Barbara didn't list a starter for the series finale at Long Beach State this weekend, but does welcome back talented sophomore lefty Justin Jacome to the weekend rotation. Jacome hasn't started in a few weeks because of some stiffness in his back, but is slated to start the series opener against the Dirtbags. Jacome as a 2.41 ERA in 41 innings, along with 31 strikeouts and eight walks.
• Texas is red-hot and hosts TCU this weekend for an important Big 12 series. Though the Longhorns won't need righthanded pitcher Lukas Schiraldi (usual midweek starter), who's dealing with a slight muscle strain, against the Horned Frogs, the day-to-day situation with Madison Carter could be another story. Carter is productive at the plate and remains questionable with an oblique strain.
• Maryland has a huge series against Georgia Tech this weekend, and has one of the better stories in college baseball in righthanded pitcher Jake Stinnett. Stinnett, a senior, is having quite an impressive campaign for the Terps and is gaining steam on the national stage. “Wherever you have him on your list, move him way up,” One American League crosschecker told me earlier this week. Stinnett has a fastball in the mid-90s along with a good slider, while also having a 2.77 ERA in 65 innings, along with 74 strikeouts and 15 walks.
• Cal Poly likely is showing us a glimpse of what to expect in the NCAA postseason. Though rumors swirled before the season the Mustangs would be unable to host an NCAA Regional at Baggett Stadium, that doesn't appear to be a problem. Cal Poly's athletic director has stated they will submit a competitive bid, while the university is adding 738 additional seats (by way of bleachers) for this weekend's series against Cal State Fullerton, raising the official capacity to 2,472. By comparison, UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium, which has hosted multiple NCAA postseason events, has a capacity of 1,820.
• South Carolina is dealing with some serious injuries this season, and things might've gotten worse Wednesday night when second baseman Max Schrock, who has dealt with an injury and illness already, went down with yet another setback, this time a back injury. Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook wasn't confident about Schrock's return this season.
• You can see our latest NCAA postseason projections, here, but if you're wanting the entire glimpse of the RPI picture as it stands right now, check out the NCAA's latest official RPI figures, here. The top 10 from an RPI standpoint this week includes, in order, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Florida State, Ole Miss, Houston, Louisiana-Lafayette, Virginia, Indiana and Texas Tech.