(Photo by Ian Billings)
Over the years, postseason berths have always been a question for the Mustangs at this point of the season. But this season turned out to be a little bit different.
After posting a Division I-school record 39 wins and earning their best RPI ranking in head coach Larry Lee’s tenure, the Mustangs knew they’d be granted a berth in the regional round of the tournament. The only question remaining was where they would end up.
And Monday morning that question was answered, as it was announced the Mustangs will play the University of San Diego in a first-round pairing of the Los Angeles Regional on Friday at 2 p.m. Cal Poly will either play UCLA or San Diego State in the second game of the four-team, double-elimination format.
“In my mind, we weren’t a bubble team the last couple of weeks, especially after we won a couple games against (Cal State) Northridge,” Lee said of the likelihood that his team would earn a bid. “We were in because our RPI wasn’t going to drop too much even if we were going to lose any games. This is the first time in my 11 years that we weren’t a bubble team.”
Last year, the Mustangs finished second in the conference standings behind champion Cal State Fullerton — posting a 36-20 overall record in the process — but weren’t awarded a spot in the regional matchups. Cal Poly has garnered a berth just one time before, when the Mustangs finished 37-21 in 2009, but they were eliminated that year after losing two straight in the Tempe Regional.
Senior second baseman Denver Chavez is the only remaining member of that team to still play for Cal Poly. But unlike in years past, he was sure the Mustangs were a tournament lock for Monday’s announcement.
“I remember going to sleep this time last year really rattled, not knowing what was going to happen,” Chavez said. “This year, I slept through the whole selection (show) just because I really wasn’t worried about it.”
After losing two of three at UC Irvine earlier this month, Cal Poly rallied and won six straight before falling to Pacific 7-4 in the regular season finale Saturday.
Freshman starter Casey Bloomquist (6-2) suffered the loss in that game, as he went 2 1/3 innings to allow four runs on six hits. The Mustangs also committed three errors to be denied their first 40-win season since they won 41 games in both 1977 and 1992 at the Division II level.
The Mustangs finished the regular season 39-17 overall and 17-10 in conference play this year, placing them in a tie for second in the Big West standings with UC Santa Barbara. Cal Poly did that with the help of one of the conference’s top pitching staffs, which ranked third in strikeouts and second in team ERA. But for Lee, Cal Poly will have to improve at the plate for a shot to advance in the tournament.
“Our offense has never really clicked in to where it should be,” Lee said. “I don’t know if it needs to be there, but I would hope we have the capability of being more productive from an offensive standpoint. But after 56 games, we are who we are.”
Cal Poly knows that it’s a pitching-first team and will have Friday night ace and senior Joey Wagman start the playoffs on the mound Friday. Another win will give him a Cal Poly record 13 wins on the season.
“One thing we’re talking about is that it’s not going to be easy,” Wagman said. “All the teams in the regional are good, but it’s winnable. And that’s one thing we’re excited about.”
The winner of the Los Angeles Regional will face the winner of the Fullerton Regional, which features Big West foe and No. 5-ranked Cal State Fullerton. If the Mustangs advance from the opening round, they will play in a best-of-three series in the Super Regionals to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
UC Santa Barbara also snuck into the field of 64, as it was announced that the Gauchos will play Texas A&M in their first-round pairing at the Corvallis Regional. This is the first time since 2009 that three Big West teams made it to the NCAA tournament.
“There’s not an easy regional in the country, and there definitely isn’t an easy regional out west,” Lee said. “Basically, it’s gonna be the team that plays best throughout the course of the weekend. The team that doesn’t beat themselves is gonna have the best opportunity to win.”