The Cal Poly baseball team had a season to remember last year.
The Mustangs led the Big West Conference in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and finished the 2012 season on a tear. They won 14 of their final 17 games, landing them just one game behind conference champions Cal State Fullerton and one game short of the postseason.
“The majority of last year’s team is back,” head coach Larry Lee said. “But with that experience, expectations are high. Our players know what they have to do to continue to get better and prepare themselves for this upcoming season.”
Cal Poly only lost three starting position players and two pitchers coming into 2013, but a few of those former Mustangs have left some big shoes to fill.
Big West Player of the Year Mitch Haniger batted cleanup for the Mustangs in 2012, hit .346 and led the Big West with 13 home runs and 64 RBIs.
Shortstop Mike Miller was drafted by the Boston Red Sox after leading the Mustangs in batting average, hits and runs scored in 2012.
“Those are two guys you can’t replace,” senior starting pitcher Joey Wagman said. “Especially just with two guys. If we can fill those shoes with six guys, fill the leadership, fill the offense and the defense that those guys bring, we’re confident.”
In Haniger’s absence, David Armendariz will slide over to center field and bat somewhere in the middle of the lineup, according to Lee. The junior started 52 games in 2012, recorded a .312 average and finished fourth in the Big West with 13 steals.
“We have some upperclassmen that are going to fill those roles,” junior third basemen Jimmy Allen said. “Those were two big guys in our lineup hitting-wise, and I think we can learn from what (Miller) and them did last year and continue what we are doing.”
Freshman Peter Van Gansen earned All-CIF-Southern Section Division II honors with Alemany High School last year, and is expected to start at shortstop in his first season with the Mustangs.
“It’s just a matter of players stepping up,” Lee said. “Players from last year have another year of experience under their belt. Also, our incoming freshmen, a number of them will be asked to contribute immediately. It’s very important for our returners to get off to a good start to lessen the pressure on our young players.”
First baseman Tim Wise will take over Miller’s leadoff duties. With over half of his starts at designated hitter, the 6-foot-4 junior hit .308 a year ago, earning him All-Big West honors.
“He’s not a prototypical leadoff hitter,” Lee said. “He is more of a 3-4-5 hole hitter. He fits the role just because he’s patient and is a tough out and he’ll see a number of pitches over the course of a game. Although he could hit elsewhere in our lineup, he serves our team best by leading off.”
The Mustangs will have more big shoes to fill on the mound as well.
Southpaw Kyle Anderson (10-1, 3.40 ERA in 2012) led the pitching staff to a Cal Poly Division I record 3.48 ERA and signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Toronto Blue Jays immediately following the draft in June.
Wagman, who recorded nine wins of his own and a 2.33 ERA last year, will reassume his role and anchor the pitching staff on Fridays, while Matt Imhof will take over Anderson’s starting spot on Saturdays.
“I think we are going to have a real good pitching staff,” Wagman said. “I think we are going to have the best staff since I’ve been here. We have a lot of returners. We are only losing two guys and returned a lot of experience. I think that’s going to be one of the strengths of this team.”
But the real question for Cal Poly lies beyond the first two starters, as more than half of the Mustangs’ 20 losses came on Sundays and Tuesdays last season.
“Our success hinges a lot on who is going to pitch on Sundays and Tuesdays,” Lee said. “Even though we won 36 games last year, which is a high number out on the West Coast, and finished one game from winning the Big West title, we weren’t a very good team on Sundays and Tuesdays. So that’s the key to our success this year.”
Lee expects sophomore Bryan Granger and senior Kyle Brueggemann to toe the rubber on those days and improve on last season’s 8-11 Sunday/Tuesday record.
Their success starting ballgames will pave the way for a bullpen that squandered four ninth inning leads last year, three of them against conference opponents.
“When you play 56 games in three-and-a-half months, the bullpen is extremely important,” Lee said. “That was kind of our achilles’ heel last year. We couldn’t get three outs in the ninth inning. We are better this year in the pen, but only if Granger and Brueggemann can give us quality innings.”
Lee will look to sophomore Reed Reilly and junior Michael Holback to take the ball in the late innings and lead the Cal Poly bullpen.
The Mustangs officially begin their season on the road against San Francisco on Friday and return home on Feb. 22 to host Seattle.
For Lee, the goal remains the same as every year.
“Try to win a Big West title, gain a berth in the postseason and advance as far as you can through the playoffs,” Lee said. “You never know how good you’re going to be until you step on the field.”
The Mustangs will face their first Big West opponent, UC Davis, on March 28 at Baggett Stadium.