Cal Poly baseball needs a strong weekend against visitors Long Beach State. | Ian Billings/ Mustang News

Stephan Teodosescu
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Clinging to a three-run lead and with oft-reliable senior closer Danny Zandona strutting to the mound to get the final six outs of this past Friday night’s game, the Cal Poly baseball team had to feel good about its start to the series against rival UC Santa Barbara.

Zandona, who sported a then-1.19 ERA, was on his way to closing the door on the top-10 ranked Gauchos and to capturing the first of an important three-game Big West series on the road.

Instead, the veteran reliever lost his command after striking out the first hitter of the frame, walked three batters, earned a balk and was tagged for four hits and five earned runs in a disastrous bottom of the eighth inning before being taken out. UC Santa Barbara took the lead and eventually won 8-7 to open the series.

“I should have taken a deep breath, walked off the mound and maybe taken 30 seconds or so to gather myself, which is something I’m usually pretty good at doing,” Zandona said. “But I failed to do so and it kind of spiraled out of control from there.”

Cal Poly (17-20 overall) evened things on Saturday with a solid pitching performance from freshman Kyle Smith, but dropped the rubber match on Sunday to lose arguably the most important three-game set of the season to this point.

All of that set up a precarious situation for the remainder of Cal Poly’s year. Sitting in fifth place in the conference standings at 5-4, the Mustangs will now have to treat each weekend series like it’s their last.

To receive the conference’s automatic bid to the postseason, they’ll have to win the regular season title — no small task considering the Mustangs are 3.5 games back of leader UC Irvine.

Anything less than a championship will send them home packing.

“We have to win our conference to get to the postseason,” head coach Larry Lee said at Monday’s press conference. “We didn’t help ourselves this past weekend… Everything’s in front of us and it’s gonna be a difficult task because of who we are.”

Who are the Mustangs? They’re a team with two solid starting pitchers in junior Casey Bloomquist and Smith, but who struggle to find consistency in their Sunday starts. Cal Poly, which is 2-7 with a 6.87 staff-ERA in those games, will need to manufacture wins with the help of the offense and the bullpen.

“We’re just not deep enough, starting pitching-wise, to be good on Sundays, so we have to do a combination of things,” Lee said.

No team with more than eight losses has won the Big West regular season title since 2000. Cal Poly, last year’s winner, finished the year with five tallies in the loss column. Overall, the winners have averaged five losses since 1997, the year the Mustangs joined the Big West.

More important, though, is to look at the teams sitting ahead of Cal Poly right now.

UC Irvine has two losses, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Fullerton are tied with three and Long Beach State’s 7-5 mark nudges Cal Poly’s 5-4 record at the moment.

UC Irvine and the Dirtbags are the only two teams remaining with better records on Cal Poly’s schedule. If the Mustangs can at least win both series and sweep the other conference matchups, they’ll finish with a record of 18-6 in the Big West. But even with that, Cal Poly will likely need some help from the top dogs considering it doesn’t hold the tiebreaker with the Gauchos or Cal State Fullerton.

Long Beach State, this weekend’s opponent at home, has given Cal Poly fits in the past. The Mustangs are 16-46 against the Dirtbags since moving to Division I in 1995. Overall, Lee is 10-26 against them in his time at the helm.

“They have one of the best pitching staffs, not in the conference, but probably the nation,” Zandona said. “That’s their strength, they pitch really well.”

Each of Long Beach State’s starting pitchers sport an ERA below 2.50, highlighted by Sunday starter freshman Chris Mathewson’s 1.28 ERA — good enough for 11th in the country.

Those numbers might be inflated due to the Dirtbags’ home stadium, Blair Field, being a notorious pitcher’s park, but there’s no questioning Cal Poly’s offense needs to show up this weekend if it wants a shot at the postseason.

“We definitely have to pick it up if we want to make it to the playoffs,” junior shortstop Peter Van Gansen, who is batting a team second-best .347 for the year, said. “But we have a very good team here and I believe we can do it if we just all play together.”

While players and coaches like to point to the mantra “take it one game at a time,” those sitting on the outside know this weekend is a must win, and most likely, a must-sweep situation. For Cal Poly, it better feel like playoff time because from here on out, it’s win-or-go-home.

First pitch for Friday’s game against the Dirtbags is set for 6 p.m. at Baggett Stadium.

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