After losing its first six games of the season, the Cal Poly baseball team recovered, winning five straight and eight of its last 12 games.
Set to start their Big West campaign, the Mustangs hope to carry that momentum into their conference schedule.
The Mustangs placed third in the Big West in 2009 after injuries to numerous starting pitchers, like Steven Fischback, crippled the team’s chances of earning the top spot in the Big West.
Cal Poly then went on to finish last season with a 10-14 Big West record and finished No. 6 overall, far below its projected No. 3 finish. This season, the Mustangs were picked to place fourth in the Big West Conference preseason coach’s poll.
Starting right fielder, and last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year, Mitch Haniger said the team is more balanced offensively and defensively than it was a season ago.
“I think in years past the offense and defense have been shaky at times, but I think this year we’re going to be strong both on the mound and in lineup,” Haniger said. “We’re going to have a really good year if everything falls into place.”
But things aren’t falling into place easily for the Mustangs. Cal Poly’s injury woes have transferred from the pitching mound to the batter’s box.
Cal Poly is without starting second baseman Matt Jensen, first baseman Tim Wise and starting shortstop Mike Miller, among others. Miller currently leads the team with a .457 batting average, and Wise is third with a .345.
But amidst the injuries, Cal Poly has continued to win with improved pitching. The team’s 2010 ERA of 6.75 has improved to 4.08 this season.
Mason Radeke holds a 3.06 ERA in five starts, while Fischback lowered his ERA to 4.78 after giving up one run in seven innings in a win versus Minnesota. Both pitchers have started the season with a 2-1 record.
Head coach Larry Lee said one of the team’s biggest strengths this season is having a great mixture of old and new players.
“There’s a lot more quality and quantity on the mound,” Lee said. “And this year there is a good mixture of young players and experienced players. If we continue to develop, I think we have a chance of having a real productive year.”
The team has also seen a major contribution from pitcher Jeff Johnson who has earned two saves, in nine appearances, while compiling a 0.84 ERA.
After missing two seasons with a torn labrum, Fischback said it is important the team does not get ahead of themselves and continue to focus on one game at a time.
“Coach has talked about taking one game at a time, and more so one pitch at a time,” Fischback said. “I felt like last season got away from us and before we knew it, we had dug ourselves in a hole. It is important to just play with a sense of urgency right from the get go.”
The Big West schedule will be a test for the Mustangs to show how far they’ve come since last season. In 2010, the Mustangs lost their first four Big West series, posting a 3-9 record during that stretch.
This year, Cal Poly opens its Big West schedule at home against UC Riverside before traveling to Santa Barbara.
The last time these two teams faced, UC Riverside opened the series with a narrow 3-2 win. The Mustangs were able to tie the series with a 5-3 1o-inning victory before dropping the third game 14-5, Cal Poly’s second-largest defeat of the season.
The first game of the series is set to begin at Baggett Stadium April 1 at 6 p.m.