With a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of what would be the final game of his collegiate career, junior right-hander Erich Uelmen was locked in. He’d already pitched eight shutout innings and was confident he would finish what he started.
He jogged out of the dugout onto the well-manicured infield of Baggett Stadium, ascending to the top of the pitcher’s mound he was so familiar with. The metal spikes of his cleats dug into the grainy dirt at the edge of the rubber from which he made baseballs elusively dance away from his opponents’ bats all season long.
Three more outs. One last time.
“There was a thought [to take him out of the game], but he’d earned the right to go out there in the ninth,” head coach Larry Lee said. “There was no notion that he was wearing down or anything. He was as strong in the ninth inning as he was early in the ballgame.”
Uelmen made quick work of UC Riverside’s last three batters and just like that, his college career had come to a storybook ending — a complete-game shutout with a career-high 12 strikeouts.
“It was a pretty crazy feeling,” Uelmen said. “I just went down the line and hugged my teammates and just realized how great of an experience Cal Poly has been for me.”
His time at Cal Poly has come to an end, but just as quickly as the door closed on Uelmen’s tenure with the Mustangs, another will open when he likely hears his name called in the Major League Baseball Draft June 12.
Though Uelmen led the Big West in losses this season with an overall record of 4-8, his record doesn’t accurately reflect how dominant he was this year. He was a workhorse for the Mustangs’ pitching staff all season long, posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.3 to 1 while averaging 9.15 strikeouts per nine innings. He finished second in conference with 100 strikeouts on the season and sixth in conference with an earned run average of 2.93.
Still, none of this translated to wins for the Mustangs early on.
Uelmen suffered through a winless streak of eight straight games despite surrendering more than three runs in only one of those games. He endured a stretch of 22 ⅔ consecutive innings during a three-game span without the Mustangs’ offense scoring any runs in support.
“That’s just the life of a pitcher sometimes,” Lee said. “You get good run support and quality defense behind you, other times you don’t. Really for Erich, up until we got to conference we really didn’t provide either for him.”
Despite all of the chances he had to get down on himself and his teammates, Uelmen stayed positive. This was a big step for his improvement since he joined the team back in 2014. In past seasons, he would appear rattled at times when his defense didn’t play well behind him, something he was able to overcome this season.
“I’m very impressed in how mentally he was able to get to the next pitch,” Lee said. “This year, he learned to let it go and understand that it’s out of his control and the only thing he has control of is the next pitch that he throws.”
Most projections have Uelmen being drafted between the second and sixth rounds of the MLB Draft. As a lifelong Brewers fan, Uelmen fantasized about taking the field alongside his favorite childhood ball club. He also couldn’t help but notice that the Brewers’ pitching staff has been one of the weaker points of the team during the last few seasons and thinks he could be part of the answer to their struggles on the mound.
“I kind of noticed that they have some struggles on the pitching side,” Uelmen said. “So I kind of want to go fill those and make them a better team.”
Though nothing is guaranteed in sports, it almost seems like a forgone conclusion that Uelmen is going to be a successful professional. In his senior year at Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Uelmen decimated the competition on his way to a 9-1 record with an ERA of 1.19 over 58 ⅔ innings pitched.
Ultimately, his team finished the year by capturing the Sunset League title and the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Division I-A championship.
While he was undoubtedly talented enough to play at the next level, Uelmen was equally gifted in the classroom. He graduated high school with a 4.0 grade point average and wanted to be sure that whichever college he attended was good academically and athletically. This made Cal Poly a prime candidate for Uelmen.
After graduating high school as the number two ranked right-handed pitcher in the state of Nevada, Uelmen decided to head west from the City of Sin to San Luis Obispo.
The highly-touted prospect knew he would need to continue to carefully develop his craft in order to stay relevant in the highly competitive Big West. With his ultimate goal always in the back of his mind, Uelmen became more focused on the nuances of preparing for the game off the field.
“From when he first stepped foot on campus three years ago, great strides in a lot of areas, not just with pitches, but the mental side of it,” Lee said.
With a newfound focus, Uelmen began to mature, both mentally and physically, into the player he is today.
“I have gotten stronger, got more experience, but I think just the maturity of playing college athletics and being in college, you just kind of learn more about yourself and what you’re capable of doing,” Uelmen said. “And that’s just pretty important to build off of and then take into account what you’re working toward.”
Even though much of Uelmen’s development was introspective, his teammates provided the perfect environment to foster his growth. While many of the coaches at Cal Poly helped Uelmen along the way, he credits most of his development to his teammates.
“It’s for sure a big team thing,” Uelmen said. “We were all one family unit.”
Going forward, Lee, who has sent 63 players to the next level in his tenure with the Mustangs, has no doubt that Uelmen will be able to build on his Cal Poly career in the big leagues.
“He’s a competitor, somebody that’s on the upside. Somebody that has velocity from a low three-quarter arm slot, and someone that shows signs of continuing to get better,” Lee said. “He’ll be a high draft and I think that the future is bright for [Uelmen].”