Alex McKenna always knew that he would be playing baseball for Cal Poly, committing to the Mustangs during his junior year of high school.
He knew he wanted a spot on the team so badly that he passed up an offer to play Major League Baseball. Last June, the Minnesota Twins picked McKenna in the 38th round of the draft, but he chose not to sign. Instead, he followed through with his commitment to play baseball at Cal Poly.
“Cal Poly is a great school, a school that I chose to go to because of the great area, the great academics and the great baseball team, obviously,” McKenna said.
What McKenna didn’t know was that he would be starting in center field during his freshman season.
“It was just the kind of thing where I showed up to the field and I was in the lineup,” he said. “It was a good feeling but you also got to realize that you gotta do everything you can to help the team.”
He started in all four games of the season-opening series against Pacific and has continued to start in every game since.
Being in the starting lineup early in his collegiate career left McKenna with little time to adapt to the ways of college baseball, but he does not see that as an obstacle.
“I didn’t really know how (the Pacific game) was going to be,” McKenna said. “Once we got after it here in the pregame and got acclimated to what it is going to be like for the rest of the year, it was pretty cool. Playing that first game and getting a win for my first collegiate start was pretty special.”
McKenna has been able to provide something special to the game in return.
With 13 games now under his belt, he is hitting .340 and has already hit two home runs and knocked in nine runs. McKenna also sports a .958 percent fielding average.
Dynamics like McKenna’s are not unusual to this year’s team.
Freshmen make up nearly half of the Cal Poly baseball team, a young team that has started a red-hot 10-3 this season.
After losing the bulk of last year’s team to the Major League Baseball draft and graduation, 15 freshmen were added to this season’s 34-man roster, which also sports only eight juniors and two seniors.
“We didn’t anticipate losing so many players; we knew we had six seniors we were going to lose, and that’s a high number for us,” head coach Larry Lee said. “We knew we were going to lose two juniors, we ended up losing all four. And then to compound that, we lost two of our high recruits.”
Despite losing some of his top players — including ace pitcher Casey Bloomquist, who signed with the Chicago Cubs — Lee sees the positives in having a younger team.
“As long as they’re good, as long as the quality’s there, I like going with young guys because in theory you only have them for three years because the good ones are going to sign after their junior year,” Lee said. “They’re good, they’re gonna make their mistakes because they’re freshmen, but you’re gonna live with those guys because they’ve earned it, they’re the better players … They’ll continue to get better with experience.”
Out of the 15 freshmen on the team, four are expected to be in the starting lineup this season.
One of the four is Kyle Marinconz, who starts at either shortstop or second base, depending on the game.
He has started in every game so far, holding a .985 fielding percentage and through 47 at-bats, he’s maintaining a batting average of .362 with four RBI.
“My role has been to be just one guy, a part of the team,” Marinconz said. “We don’t have one guy who’s just going to go out there and win the game. It takes nine guys on the field to win a ballgame and I just want to be one of those nine.”
Marinconz enjoys being part of a younger team as it gives him advantages that he wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I expected (the young team) coming in, I knew that a bunch of the older guys were going to get drafted and it was good to know that you have a chance coming in to be a major impact player,” Marinconz said. “I know everyone here knows that and everybody works hard.”
The players know that they have to work hard to earn their positions on the team.
“Everyone’s on an even playing field,” McKenna said. “You’ve gotta do the little things right … You’ve gotta be a confident guy, go out there and go about your business the right way. If you do that, good things happen, you get rewarded for working hard.”
There are dynamics unique to college games that are foreign to the high school level, requiring younger players to adapt to the environment. Freshmen have to learn to adjust to playing games under the lights, playing for a larger crowd and playing at an overall higher intensity than what they are used to. The younger players look to the returning players for guidance.
“Coming in here as a freshman, the older guys really took all of us under their wing just because we’re really young,” McKenna said. “In order for us to be good this year, a lot of the young guys are going to have to step up and play well.”
Junior catcher and first baseman Brett Barbier is one of two team captains this season.
“On the field when stuff kind of hits the fan or we’re in a rough inning, my job is just being calm and letting the younger guys know like ‘Hey, we’re gonna get out of this, it’s not a big deal,’” Barbier said. “When I’m playing first base and I have Kyle Marinconz playing second, he’s kind of uptight sometimes out there, but I’m out there cracking jokes with him, just trying to get him to loosen up.”
Barbier is no stranger to Cal Poly baseball. He started in 48 games last season and has proven to be a versatile player, starting behind the plate, at first base, in left field or at designated hitter. Barbier was also named second team all-conference as a utility player in the 2016 College Sports Madness Big West Preseason poll. This is his fourth year on the team and he uses his experience to help his teammates.
“As an older guy and playing with older guys in the past, that was their role,” Barbier said. “They were just like, ‘It’s just a baseball game,’ and you’ve just got to let them know that.”
Coming off a rough 2015 season where the Mustangs went 27-27 and lost experienced players, Barbier had his doubts about this season.
“I was a little nervous because we’re young,” Barbier said. “I feel like, so far, we’ve handled the bumps in the road pretty well. And that was what I was most nervous about, was the young guys being ready to play by the time season came and I’ve been very impressed by a lot of the guys that have been able to get the opportunity to play so it just made me way more confident in everybody else.”
Barbier sees positive changes in the team’s chemistry, ones different from years previous.
“This season’s a lot different from last year … There’s definitely more of a winning sense when we’re down in a game … There’s not this apprehensive feeling among players when we’re down in a game,” Barbier said. “That brings it back more toward my redshirt freshman year (2014) when we won Big West and it was kind of that atmosphere in the dugout and with the team.”
The new players were thrown another fresh element to them on Tuesday, playing their first away game of the season.
Playing on the road requires athletes to lose sleep for travelling time, to miss class and to adapt to being in a completely different environment, playing in unfamiliar baseball fields.
“All those little things play a huge role … especially on a young team like this,” Barbier said. “These next three weeks are going to be the true test for our team and seeing how we do, and I am confident that everyone will be able to make it through.”
After completing a 12-game season-opening home stand, the Mustangs faced the Pepperdine Waves on Tuesday to being a 10-game road trip.
The Mustangs lost to the Waves 12-4 after Pepperdine ripped off an 11-run second inning to take the game. Four of the runs were unearned, all coming from one throwing error made by Cal Poly junior third baseman Michael Sanderson, a community college transfer playing his first season for the Mustangs.
“The more game experience we can get, we can learn from our mistakes,” Lee said.