The Mustangs head south to face their rivals in Santa Barbara Friday, but shortstop Mike Miller, who leads the team with a .383 batting average, isn’t going to let the aura of a rivalry stop him from seeing the big picture.
“Every game is important from here on out,” Miller said. “Every series determines what we do in the postseason. We have to keep ourselves in the mix and can’t bury ourselves early. Every week is going to be more important than the last.”
The last time the Blue-Green Rivalry took the field, UC Santa Barbara walked away with a 2-1 series victory. The Mustangs opened the series with a 10-inning, 4-3 victory, but the Gauchos responded with their own late-game comeback, overcoming a 9-7 deficit to win 10-9 in the 9th inning of game two. The Gauchos took the series in game three with a convincing 10-3 win.
By the end of the conference schedule, both teams finished tied for fifth in the Big West, with a 10-14 conference record.
This season, UC Santa Barbara was picked to finish sixth in a Big West preseason coach’s poll, while Cal Poly was picked to finish fourth.
Head coach Larry Lee said both teams will match up closely, but a win will be vital in separating Cal Poly from the middle of the pack.
“(Cal Poly) and UC Santa Barbara are going to be pretty evenly matched teams,” Lee said. “But right now we’re looking to win out in all of our conference games. We know that we can’t get too far behind the conference leaders.”
Junior pitcher Mason Radeke will open the series Friday. Radeke is off to a stellar start this season, posting a 3-1 record, with a 2.66 ERA. He is also tied for third in the Big West with 47 strikeouts.
In his last start, Radeke gave up just one run in 8 2/3 innings, while striking out seven in a 4-1 victory versus UC Riverside.
Radeke said the opening win helped build momentum, which will carry over into the team’s games this weekend.
“Those wins make a difference in momentum,” Radeke said. “We have momentum built up with two good wins over UCR and it’s going to carry over to UCSB. We’re going to have to pitch well and continue to scrap some runs in.”
Radeke last faced UC Santa Barbara in 2009 and it was also the last time the Mustangs defeated the Gauchos. He gave up five earned runs in six innings, walking five and striking out two, but behind a powerful Cal Poly offense, earned a 15-7 win in 2009.
With a lineup that’s seventh in the Big West with a .257 batting average, Lee said the team is going to have to rely on its pitching to keep having success.
“We’ve struggled for the most part putting together a solid offense,” Lee said. “At this time were not the type of team to put a number of runs on the board. If we win, were going to win in a low scoring, close ball game.”
Half of Cal Poly’s 24 games this season have been decided by two runs or less. The Mustangs have gone 4-8 in those games, while batting just 3-for-24 with the bases loaded.
But with a fresh start in Big West play, the Mustangs have been able to capitalize on late-game opportunities. Cal Poly won its Big West opener versus UC Riverside, taking the first game with three runs scored in the seventh and a 10th inning walk-off victory in game three.
“I think that it’s important to start off conference with a series win and the way we won it,” Lee said. “It will help us continue in our confidence and help us know we can come back and win a close baseball game.”
Cal Poly’s injury woes have begun to alleviate, with Miller returning to the lineup against UC Riverside. Miller led the team with a .458 batting average and went 2-11, with 3 RBIs, in his first three games back.
Though still improving his condition, Miller said when batting, his wrist is still bothering him.
“Defensively, I’m fine,” Miller said. “Hitting-wise, there’s still a little pain in the wrist. Mechanically it’s just a little off because it’s weak, so I’m not able to drive some balls like I’d want to.”
Lee said Miller is set to start again this weekend versus UC Santa Barbara, though first baseman Tim Wise and second baseman Matt Jenson might not see the field for a couple more weeks.
After enjoying 15 of the team’s last 16 games at home, the series against UC Santa Barbara will be the first on the road for Cal Poly, since Feb. 26 at Oklahoma State.
The first game of the series will begin Friday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium at 3 p.m.