With the past behind the team, the Mustangs have rekindled their NCAA Division I aspirations as they begin the new season with renewed confidence.
It was two years ago when Cal Poly’s baseball team received its first NCAA regional berth in the program’s 15-year Division I history. After being eliminated with back-to-back losses to Oral Roberts and Kent State, the Mustangs were left yearning for their first postseason win.
But with a 10-27 start to their 2010 season, the Mustangs were not able to meet expectations following one of their most successful seasons in program history.
They’re hoping this year is different.
Head coach Larry Lee, who is heading into his ninth year with the team, said he is looking at a more improved team this year that can pitch and hit effectively.
“In the past, we might have been heavy on the offensive side of the equation and possibly not so deep on the pitching end,” Lee said. “This year there is a little bit of everything, and it’s the most pitching depth we’ve ever had.”
Junior Mason Radeke, who finished last season 3-1 with a 2.96 ERA, is pegged as the Friday starting pitcher. Radeke started only four games before an elbow injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. This weekend, Radeke is expected to take the mound in the Mustangs’ season opener against Missouri at the USC tournament.
But the starting pitchers after Radeke have yet to be determined.
The Mustangs anticipate the return of right-hander Steven Fischback, who hasn’t pitched since his sophomore year in 2008 due to a torn labrum. In his last season with the Mustangs, Fischback posted a 5-4 record in 14 starts with a 4.55 ERA, striking out 79 batters.
Lee said he is hoping Fischback can take the Saturday starting role, and he is continually monitoring his progress. He is expected to go four innings in his start this weekend — most likely against North Carolina — with a close eye on his pitch count.
“We’re really hoping (Fischback) can become our Saturday starter,” Lee said. “When he left out for the fall practices, he wasn’t quite there and progress was slow. But since he’s been back, he’s really turned a corner.”
Fischback said he is actively trying to get back into his best shape and is eager to return to the mound.
“It’s kind of weird,” Fischback said. “I’ve been getting excited for this year, but it has been rough knowing that I’m not at full strength as I was sophomore year. Velocity-wise, I’ve been throwing 88 miles per hour, which is more than enough to compete. It’s just been a long wait to get back out there.”
Other possible starters include sophomore Joey Wagman, who finished last season with a 1-2 record and 7.09 ERA, and newcomers Nathan Gonzalez (a transfer from Merced College) and Chase Johnson (a true freshman from Fallbrook High School).
Lee said Johnson is a strong candidate as the third starter in the rotation.
“We’re hoping that Chase Johnson can win the Sunday starting job,” Lee said. “He continues to get better and better, and if he keeps progressing, he’ll earn himself the start.”
The Mustangs will also see the return of big bats, with junior outfielder Bobby Crocker and sophomore outfielder Mitch Haniger. Crocker finished last season with a team-best .351 batting average, and Haniger, last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year, finished with a .326 average while adding seven home runs.
In order to be successful with last year’s 10-27 start in mind, Haniger said, the team needs to keep fighting no matter what and learn to win.
“Last season, we fell behind early in some tough games and it was hard to get back into it,” Haniger said. “We just can’t make early mistakes, and if we do, we have to make sure to learn from it and come back playing better from it.”
Haniger said he is already seeing the team work even harder than last season.
“I see a big difference in the work people have been putting in this fall,” Haniger said. “It’s a total different environment. Everyone’s been putting in extra time and work, and the time in the weight room has been unreal. Everyone is really confident right now.”
Last season, in a preseason poll of the Big West’s nine coaches, the Mustangs were picked to finish third overall in the conference. After their devastating start, the Mustangs were able to pull themselves out of last place with a 13-5 record in May, and they finished fifth in the Big West. This season, the Mustangs were picked to finish fourth.
The Mustangs will be on the road for the first three weeks of their season, traveling to Los Angeles to begin the year, where they will face Missouri, North Carolina and USC this weekend. Then the Mustangs travel to Oklahoma State for a weekend series and a mid-week showdown against Fresno State March 1.
Cal Poly will play its home opener in Baggett Stadium against Valparaiso March 4.