After starting the season 9-17, the Cal Poly baseball team was left with plenty of questions about its defense.

The Mustangs, who have since won eight of 11, found answers in the return of sophomore shortstop Kyle Smith from injury and vastly improved performances out of the bullpen, Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said.

“I think the bullpen’s really stepped up quite a bit,” Lee said. “They have more confidence in what they’re doing – they’re getting outs.”

Lee added the return of Smith, who missed the Mustangs’ first two Big West Conference series, in which they went 1-5, “gave (the Mustangs) some stability, especially from a defensive standpoint.”

Some of the Mustangs’ recently helpful relief performances have come courtesy of sophomore right-hander D.J. Mauldin, who hurled 9 2/3 scoreless frames during a recent four-game stretch for a win and two saves, and senior right-hander Brian Grening, who’s picked up two victories from 5 1/3 innings against Fresno State and six against Pacific.

Lee added the bullpen has also been strengthened by the return of formerly starting junior southpaw Derrick Saito.

If there were ever a time this season for Cal Poly to test its improvement, it could be now, as the Mustangs will begin an eight-game homestand while opening a three-game series against UC Santa Barbara in Baggett Stadium at 6 tonight.

The second-place Gauchos (27-12, 6-3 Big West), who swept three contests with USC from April 18 to Sunday by a combined score of 35-6, lead the Big West in team batting average, at .328.

“They’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Lee said. “They have really good starting pitching on weekends, and they have a lot of experience on their team. They’re playing as well as anybody right now – hopefully we can match them.”

Cal Poly (17-20, 5-7 Big West), which got out to a 7-1 lead Tuesday at No. 7 Cal before surrendering it and falling 10-8, topped UCSB in the teams’ most recent meeting, 15-6 March 11.

More recently, the Mustangs took conference series 2-1 against both Pacific and UC Davis.

“After the series against Davis, I think you could sense that our players finally saw they were playing to their capabilities,” Lee said.

First pitch Saturday is also scheduled for 6 p.m., with Sunday’s start slated for 1 p.m.

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