When the Big West Conference’s top two teams face off at Baggett Stadium this weekend, the spotlight will be directed straight at the mound.
In what could figure to be a series of pitchers’ duels and low-scoring affairs, the No. 16 Cal Poly baseball team will take on No. 4 Cal State Fullerton in a top-25 matchup featuring two of the best starting rotations in all of college baseball this weekend.
The Mustangs (25-9, 6-3 Big West) and Titans (32-5, 8-1) will clash for the first time this season with a 6 p.m. start Friday, where senior ace Joey Wagman will take the mound for Cal Poly to begin the biggest series of the year.
“This will probably be the best pitching staff that we’ve faced,” head coach Larry Lee said. “Their entire pitching staff opponents are only hitting .229 against them and that’s unheard of. You look at their starters’ numbers — they’re 20-3 with their three starters and they don’t give up a lot of hits. They don’t walk a lot of people.”
The story in the Mustangs’ dugout this season has also been the pitching, though. Wagman (7-2, 2.95 ERA) has thrown two complete games and leads the staff with 72 strikeouts on the year, a stat line that Cal Poly prides itself on. In fact, the Mustangs currently rank No. 6 in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings, according to NCAA.com.
Similarly, the Titans rank in the top 10 in team ERA. They’ll counter with an all-star lineup on the bump for all three games adding to the recipe of potential close ballgames.
“It will be important for us to get on the board early against them,” senior infielder Denver Chavez said. “The more runs we can put up early, the better off we’ll be … I feel like it’s gonna be a low scoring series.”
The Mustangs will need more of the same from their leadoff man Chavez this weekend. He has provided much of the spark on offense for Cal Poly leading the team, batting .403 while sporting a .468 on-base percentage entering Friday night’s contest.
He will likely battle with the Titans’ duo of starter Thomas Eshelman and closer Michael Lorenzen on Friday, who are both early candidates for the College Baseball Hall of Fame’s National Pitcher of the Year award.
Eshelman leads the Big West with a 1.09 ERA and a 7-1 record on the mound this year, while Lorenzen doubles as one of the most lethal two-way players in college baseball. He ranks third on the Titans’ roster in batting at a .343 clip to go along with his conference-leading 12 saves.
Potential accolades aside, Cal State Fullerton’s numbers on the mound speak for themselves, Lee said.
“There really aren’t any deficiencies in their game,” Lee said. “We have to play our best to be in each game. The good thing is that we’re at home. The bad thing is that they’re 17-1 on the road.”
After taking two of three from Hawaii this past weekend, the Mustangs jumped four spots to their No. 16 ranking in this week’s latest Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll and are ranked in the top 25 in all five major polls for the third time in the past four weeks.
They used dominating pitching performances from Wagman and southpaw Saturday starter Matt Imhof to drop the Rainbows in the opening two games of the series. The Mustangs couldn’t erase an early 4-0 deficit on Sunday, though, as Cal Poly left a runner stranded in the ninth, losing 7-6 in the series finale. But they came back with a convincing win on Tuesday in a nonconference matchup with Santa Clara.
“Myself and the team included, we’re approaching this series just like any other series,” Wagman said. “Obviously we respect Fullerton, and we know they’re a quality team, but we definitely don’t fear them at all.”
The Titans will not only be the best defensive team Cal Poly has faced this season, but the best offensive one too, according to Lee. They lead the Big West in runs scored, RBIs and hits among other categories.
“They’re one of the better Fullerton teams in recent memory,” Lee said. “They’re very good in all facets of the game, and it’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Imhof will get the start on Saturday night and sophomore Bryan Granger is expected to toe the rubber for a 1 p.m. Sunday start.
“All the Big West series are important, but this is one where if we win it, we can gain a lot of ground in the standings,” Chavez said.