Head coach Larry Lee challenged his team after being swept by Cal State Fullerton three weeks ago.
The Mustangs hadn’t seen a weekend series win through nearly three quarters of his team’s schedule, there were no playoffs in sight and they would need a miracle-like run to push their record past .500.
But then Lee stepped in. He challenged his team to win 10 of their remaining 19 games — just enough to put the ball club past the 20-win mark come May.
The task may have been daunting for the (10-26) team at that point, but it didn’t show in its performance on the field. His team responded to the challenge.
Since then, the Mustangs have won five of their last seven ballgames, while scoring seven or more runs in their last eight. Now a goal that would have looked close to impossible in the middle of the year seems a little more within reach. This weekend, the Mustangs (15-29, 6-12 Big West) hope their three-game series against conference rival UC Davis will help them inch closer to that milestone.
“Right now, we’re on track to do it. We’re just trying to work hard and get to that,” catcher Ross Brayton said. “You obviously don’t want to just throw away the season. We are so far in, we still want to get the respect that we had at the beginning (of the season).”
The Mustangs now have the momentum and look to keep it rolling. After keeping every game against UC Irvine close this weekend, Cal Poly grabbed an 18-11 win against Loyola Marymount Tuesday afternoon.
“Now we are finding ways to win, getting those breaks we weren’t getting at the beginning of the year. Just to get to 20 wins, we would prove to ourselves that ‘Hey, we battled through this year. Even though it wasn’t the greatest year, we still reached a goal,’” Brayton said.
The Mustangs can credit their bats for the resurgence. With a team 6.99 ERA, Cal Poly can’t win games with a consistent four-runs-a-game effort. Instead, high run totals are necessary to keep games close. With the return of key contributors like Brayton and designated hitter Mitch Haniger, the Mustangs have been able to achieve such totals.
“That just shows how good we actually are,” Brayton said. “We are starting to play to our capabilities, and we are proving to ourselves we are as good as we thought we were.”
But even with the offense rolling, the Mustangs’ approach may have to change when they head into James M. and Ann Dobbins Baseball Stadium this weekend. Even for hitters like outfielder Luke Yoder, who hit three home runs in his last two games, the 410-foot center field wall may seem a bit farther than usual.
“We’ve got to make sure we really focus on hitting low line drives,” Yoder said. “That field compared to ours is a dead zone. The ball doesn’t fly very well at that field at all … If you hit the ball in the air, it’s almost going to be an out every time.”
UC Davis currently stands at (20-24, 4-11) and responded to being swept by Pacific over the weekend with an 8-5 win against Saint Mary’s Tuesday afternoon. But the win was just a brief moment of celebration in a losing season thus far.
“Lately it has been a little tough; we haven’t done as well as we wanted to,” Aggies catcher Scott Kalush said. “Overall, we have a lot of work to do. We definitely need to keep improving, but we’re taking a few steps in the right direction. ”
The Aggies hope those steps will help them defeat the Mustangs.
“Cal Poly is always a good team, and it’s always been a tough series,” said Kalush, who is hitting .298 with 21 RBIs. “We definitely are going to have to bring our game.”
The Aggies came into the week sitting at the bottom of the Big West. Like Cal Poly, at this point the Aggies don’t have a realistic chance at making a run for the postseason.
“We still feel like we have something to play for,” Kalush said. “Every game we are trying to go out there and win. At the very least, (we want to) send a message for next year to the rest of the conference saying, ‘We’re a team to be reckoned with, and we are not going to be taken lightly.’”
As for Cal Poly, the key to the series is about putting together all the pieces of the puzzle at the right time.
“Anything can happen on any given day,” Yoder said. “It all depends on how your pitchers are doing and how well your position players are hitting. It all comes back to the team facets. If we can put all three facets of the game together, I like our chances a lot.”
First pitch is set for Friday at 2:30 p.m.