Benjy Egel is a journalism freshman and Mustang Daily sports columnist.
Less is more, right? For the Cal Poly baseball team, this is clearly the case.
Head coach Larry Lee only lost a few players from last year’s team, but two of them were offensive monsters Mitch Haniger and Mike Miller. Some role players were going to need to make leaps for the current squad to contend.
“You wonder how players are going to react when they have to become ‘the guy,’” Lee said. “It’s still a work in progress … but our players are finding ways to win ballgames.”
Even after losing two of three in last weekend’s series against Notre Dame, the Mustangs are 15-4. Big West Conference play sits just four games away, with a matchup against UC Davis on March 28.
One emerging leader is senior Joey Wagman. A first-team All-Big West player last year, Wagman gets the ball every Friday night to open a new series.
Fielders often see fewer balls in play with Wagman on the hill. The hurler has struck out an astounding 42 batters in 33 innings with only nine walks as of
As good as Wagman has been, sophomore Matt Imhof has arguably been better. Imhof, a 6-foot-5 lefty, owns a miniscule 1.08 ERA through five starts.
The back of the bullpen contains a couple of studs as well, with closer Reed Reilly and set-up man Michael Holback. Reilly leads the team with six saves, and Holback has given up two runs in 17 innings while striking out 21.
“We’ve been very strong with Wagman and Imhof as No. 1 and 2 starters, and very strong at the end of the game with Reilly and Holback,” Lee said. “I thought we would be stronger pitching-wise, which we are.”
While the Mustangs miss Haniger’s and Miller’s production, the lineup still packs some punch. Five players are hitting more than .300, led by leadoff man and second baseman Denver Chavez at .360.
Freshman designated hitter Brian Mundell is on a personal mission to debunk the myths of seniority. Mundell has amassed the most impressive numbers of any positional player.
The list of Mundell’s accomplishments goes on and on: a .345 batting average, a .429 on-base percentage, five home runs and a .655 slugging percentage that is nearly .100 points higher than runner-up Nick Torres.
In addition to slugging percentage, Torres is second in home runs, stolen bases, hits and RBIs. He is also hitting .321, the same average as freshman shortstop Peter Van Gansen and junior third baseman Jimmy Allen.
“A couple guys are having hits here and there, some guys are starting to heat up,” Torres said. “But other guys who we rely on need to step up. That goes both in the batter’s box and on the field.”
In order to reach the College World Series, the Mustangs will have to tighten up their defense, receive improved hitting from the bottom of the lineup and overcome some noteworthy conference opponents.
Cal State Fullerton is the perennial top dog in the Big West, Lee said. The Titans have won four NCAA championships and produced major league players such as Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero and Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Conference games are typically tight, low-scoring affairs, where a single play can determine the outcome.
“Coach Lee was just talking about it, about how he’s trying to instill pressure on us so we know what it’s like and we’re ready when conference play comes,” Torres said. “A lot of close games, high intensity, high pressure … everything’s just amplified.”
UC Irvine should be another Big West front-runner after a 13-4 start to the season. Cal Poly must play the three-game series at Anteater Ballpark, where Irvine went 21-10 last year.
Pitchers Andrew Morales and Matt Whitehouse form a tough 1-2 combo for the Anteaters.
Cal State Fullerton also boasts ace Justin Garza, a recent Big West Pitcher of the Week, and Thomas Eshelman, who has a 1.57 ERA.
“Irvine does a lot of things very well, and pitching is one of them,” Lee said. “Those are the teams that have proven themselves year in and year out. There’s no reason to think that this year will be any different.”
Cal Poly has famous alumni from the diamond, including San Francisco Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow and Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.
This year’s team is sure to have players who hope to follow in their footsteps, Lee said. Getting drafted and making it to the bigs are two different things, however.
“There’s a number of players that will get the opportunity to play professional ball,” Lee said. “Climbing the ladder of the minor leagues and actually making it to the major leagues is difficult, and the odds are against you.”