Cal Poly baseball will kick off their quest for a Big West championship title at home against Washington on Friday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m.
The Mustangs return to the diamond with seven position starters from last season and a similar pitching rotation as well.
To compete at the top of the Big West the Mustangs “need to get off to a good start,” according to head coach Larry Lee.
In the last few seasons, the team has started off the season slow, which made it difficult to win the conference down the stretch.
In 2019, the Mustangs went 2-8 in their first 10 games and ended the season with a .500 record. The 2020 season was cut short by COVID-19, but the team ended their 16-game season with a 5-11 record.
Last year, the Mustangs started off 6-4, but lost momentum in the middle of the season and from April 24 to May 9, the team lost nine out of 10 games.
However, the team finished the season strong by winning 11 of their last 12 games, including series sweeps over Cal State Fullerton and Hawaii.
“A lot will be put on the returners to lead the way for the younger guys, to show them both how to play and how to approach the game,” Larry Lee said.
Headlining the returning members of the roster in 2022 are senior third baseman Tate Samuelson, sophomore shortstop Brooks Lee and sophomore righthander Drew Thorpe.
As a fifth-year senior, Samuelson comes into this season with an evolved perspective and role inside the clubhouse.
“I like to talk and I like to lead by example as well,” Samuelson said about his leadership. “Mainly [I try to] be there for anybody who needs me and if I see something that needs help, I’ll reach out.”
Besides his leadership off the field, Samuelson is a strong hitter for the Mustangs. Last season, he batted .275 with 39 RBIs, 39 runs, 12 doubles and six home runs.
“I feel like I am a smart hitter and I can bring a power presence to the middle of the lineup,” Samuelson said.
However, the goal for the fifth-year third baseman goes farther than individual success. Samuelson wants the team to make a playoff run this season.
“I want to win the Big West championships and have a chance to play for a berth in Omaha,” Samuelson said.
Looking ahead at the season, Brooks Lee described the guys as “excited, happy and [the team] can’t wait to get this thing underway.”
“People who have a bunch of experience will ultimately be the reason why we win,” Brooks Lee said about the veteran presence on the team.
Plenty of eyes will be on the shortstop this season, as he is a highly regarded prospect that could hear his name called in the first few picks of the MLB draft this year.
Despite all the talk around Brooks Lee and the scouts at every game, he said he doesn’t “have any individual goals this year.”
As a team, Brooks Lee said he wants to “get a good place in the Big West conference that will lead to a spot in the NCAA regional tournament. From there, anything can happen.”
Brooks Lee’s collegiate accolades began to pile up last season. In 2021, he was a First-Team All American, National Freshman of the Year and a finalist for the Brooks Wallace Award for the most outstanding shortstop.
At the plate, a .342 batting average with 57 RBIs, 27 doubles and 10 home runs earned him those awards. Meanwhile, in the infield, Brooks Lee had a .974 fielding percentage and six total errors in 55 games.
With those stats and recognition, Brooks Lee also feels a leadership role in the team.
Brooks Lee said being a leader includes, “trying to figure out a way to make everyone better.”
Pitcher Drew Thorpe, who will open up the season as the No.1 starter in Cal Poly’s rotation, is another MLB draft prospect along with Brooks Lee. Thorpe and Brooks Lee played together on the USA Collegiate National Team over the summer.
Last season, Thorpe posted a 3.79 ERA with a 6-6 record and led the team with 104 strikeouts in 90 ⅓ innings pitched. However, the sophomore said there are aspects of his game that he could improve on this season.
“I have developed my breaking balls so I don’t have to rely on my fastball and changeup as much as I did last year,” Thorpe said. “The breaking ball gives me a third strikeout pitch.”
Last year, the team finished with an overall record of 31-25 and a Big West record of 21-19, which landed them in fourth place.
This year, the league’s coaches have projected Cal Poly to finish fourth in the Big West in the annual pre-season poll. This is the fourth time in the last six seasons that the Mustangs have been picked to finish in fourth place.
However, it is clear that the team wants to break the eight-year drought since they last finished atop the conference standings.
“We’re ready and we want to be the Big West champions,” Thorpe said.