Historically, Cal Poly baseball has set its sights on regional competition and a conference championship as it heads into May. This year, the Mustangs only have one thing left to play for — pride.
“It’s a play for pride kinda thing now,” outfielder Bobby Crocker said. “We’ll never accept losing, but we got to stop worrying (about our record) — it’s just a matter of winning.”
Fellow sophomore Elliot Stewart, who saw last year’s team climb to a 37-21 record en route to its first NCAA tournament berth, echoed his teammates’ thoughts.
“That’s what we just talked about as a team — playing for pride,” he said. “Even if we are not going to make regionals, we might as well break someone else’s heart. We might as well knock (Fullerton) out.”
Sore arms and shoulder strains will compound Cal Poly’s “heart breaking.” The injury bug couldn’t bite at a worse time. Heading into possibly the toughest conference stretch of the season (Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine), the Mustangs (10-23, 3-6 Big West) learned they would be without the services of two key starting pitchers for the remainder of the year. Undoubtedly, the team will feel the impact. The staff has a conference-worst 6.50 ERA.
“It’s difficult, especially when you lose your higher-end players; a lot of times there’s a drop-off in whoever is next in line,” head coach Larry Lee said. “When we have someone get an injury, it’s very noticeable. We’re not able to withstand injuries because most years we don’t have that depth.”
Arguably the staff’s ace, sophomore Mason Radeke, led the pitching staff with a 2.96 ERA, with three wins in four starts and 23 strikeouts. Radeke is sidelined due to a seemingly benign injury — an elbow strain. Lee said there was a chance he could pitch toward the end of the season, but it’s not worth it. Radeke pitched more than 110 pitches in two games (110, 126).
“It’s a tough season to push (his return) when we’re not getting as many wins as we should,” Crocker said.
The Mustangs will also be without junior righty Steven Fischback for the second straight year. He is still about a year removed from labrum’s surgery, which repairs torn cartilage in the shoulder and takes about a year to recover from, Lee said. Sometimes injuries are caused by an increased number of pitches thrown or mechanical flaws, Lee added. He couldn’t put his finger on Fischback’s “out-of-the-blue” injury.
“Coming in, I never saw Fisch play; I heard he was dominant,” Stewart said. “We had high hopes for him; we could use him right now — we need a dominant pitcher right now.”
How badly do they need a dominant pitcher? In 19 of their 33 games, the Mustangs have been trailing after six innings. They have won two of those 19.
Cal Poly has two position players listed as day-to-day. Freshman outfielder Mitch Haniger, who leads the team in batting average (.337), is suffering from lower back spasms that doctors are having difficulty diagnosing. Senior catcher Ross Brayton, who has been a valuable offensive asset, is out with soft tissue damage around the knee.
“I know it’s killing Mitch (not to be in) … You definitely see it in his eyes,” Crocker said.
Fischback, Matt Leonard and Frankie Reed all underwent major shoulder surgery within the past four years. Lee doesn’t attribute it to over-pitching.
“We don’t over-pitch our guys,” he said. “We are very cautious about pitch totals and about having enough rest between outings.”
Lee is worried about injuries to his staff because it lacks depth.
“It’s very difficult to recruit the quality and depth of pitching staff at Cal Poly,” Lee said. “You’re not getting the blue chip guys; the majority of pitchers and position players are guys that need to develop, need to get stronger (and) develop their entire game. The standards of academics at Cal Poly also make it difficult — the list of players we can go after is a lot smaller than some of the other schools we’re playing against.”
The Mustangs will need quality pitching against the Titans. Big West leading, No. 16 Fullerton (21-13, 7-2) is coming off a victorious weekend series against UC Santa Barbara, in which it outscored the Gauchos, 28-7. The Titans have taken 46 of 55 games from the Mustangs over the years.
“It’s an uncomfortable position to know you’re not a full strength,” Lee said. “There is no reason to think about what if … You are the team of the moment and you go to each game with the players available and don’t think what could’ve been.”
Cal Poly is coming off another series loss to Cal State Northridge. The Mustangs were able to salvage one win in the series finale after a solid performance from pitcher Eugene Wright (1-2). Cal Poly had little trouble producing runs but couldn’t close out the first two games of the series, 10-9 and 12-8 respectively.
First pitch is slated for 7 p.m. Friday in Fullerton.