Matt Leonard is Cal Poly’s Friday starter and that means going up against the best pitcher from the opposing team.
On this night, he was facing senior All-American Daniel Bibona from UC-Irvine. Both pitchers gave strong performances as they dueled back-and-forth throughout the night. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, Bibona was just a bit better than Leonard Friday night as the 25th-ranked Anteaters defeated the Mustangs 3-1 in front of 1,021 fans at Baggett Stadium.
Leonard threw 133 pitches over eight innings surrendering nine hits and two runs, while striking out two. Bibona was even more impressive pitching eight innings, allowing only five hits and one run, while striking out six. He threw 108 pitches on the night and improved to 9-2 on the year. Leonard dropped to 0-7 as he still searches for his first win of the season.
Leonard arguably has been Cal Poly’s best pitcher this year and has consistently given the Mustangs a chance to win.
Unfortunately, the Mustangs have been unable to get Leonard a win. Leonard said he knew the game was going to be a pitching battle from the beginning because of Bibona’s talents. He said he seems to elevate his game and focus when facing tougher competition.
“The game plan tonight was to just attack the zone and make them put it in play and get early contact to get the defense working,” Leonard said.
Head coach Larry Lee said he was really happy with the effort Leonard gave and how he executed his pitches.
“He committed to the changeup tonight and off-set the timing of a very good hitting team,” Lee said. “He threw that pitch a large percentage of the time and was able to stay strong and disrupt their hitters. It was a real quality outing for him.”
Leonard said he is not concerned with his record even though he has suffered some tough defeats throughout the season.
“You just keep going out there and it doesn’t really bother me,” Leonard said. “You got to take every game just one at a time and we kind of joke about it now but it doesn’t bother me at all.”
The Anteaters (28-15, 9-4 Big West) jumped on Leonard in the first taking an early lead. Center fielder Sean Madigan led off the game with a double down the right-field line, which just eluded the diving attempt of Cal Poly right fielder Bobby Crocker. On the next pitch, second baseman Casey Stevenson lined a single to right-center to score Madigan and give Irvine a 1-0 lead.
Following two scoreless innings, the Mustangs (13-28, 5-11 Big West) were able to even the score at one in the bottom of the fourth. Left fielder Luke Yoder singled to left to begin the inning, which was the first hit of the game for Cal Poly. After being sacrificed to second and then stealing third, Yoder came home on freshman designated hitter Mitch Haniger’s bloop single to right following a lengthy at bat.
Leonard was strong all game, but surrendered the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh. He gave up a lead-off double to shortstop D.J. Crumlich to begin the inning. Madigan then drove home Crumlich with a line-drive double to right after failing on two bunt attempts to give Irvine a 2-1 lead. Third baseman Evan Busby saved a run with a diving stop on a sharp ground ball down the line by Irvine third baseman Brian Hernandez with one out to keep the deficit at one and brought the crowd to their feet.
The Anteaters added an insurance run in the top of the ninth for the final deficit. Reliever Frankie Reed came on for the Mustangs and gave up a walk to catcher Francis Larson to begin the frame. Following a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout, Stevenson lined a single to center for his second RBI of the game as Larson just beat the throw by center fielder Adam Melker.
Sunday’s starter Eric Pettis came on in the bottom half of the ninth for Irvine to pick up his fifth save of the season. He gave up a lead-off double to Yoder, but then got Melker to ground out to second and struck out the next two batters to end the game.
The Mustangs were led offensively by Yoder who had half of the team’s six hits, going 3-for-4 on the night with two stolen bases. Haniger added two singles for Cal Poly and had the Mustangs’ only RBI.
Yoder said it was difficult to get much going because Bibona could throw any of his four pitches at any time. He said the team tried to get up on the plate and look for his fastball and changeup away since those were his two main pitches.
“We gave ourselves a chance to succeed by getting six hits tonight and with a pitcher like that who can mix it up at any time, hits are hard to come by,” Yoder said.
The Mustangs were unable to take advantage of the runners they did have and ultimately, that was the difference in the game. Lee said the team tried to advance runners into scoring position to give hitters a chance since it was difficult to string a series of hits together.
“We faced a first-team All-American so we had some opportunities but he stepped up his game and made the pitches when he needed to so give the credit to Bibona,” Lee said.
Irvine pounded out 10 hits on the night and were led by Stevenson who had two hits and two RBIs. Also contributing two hits for the Anteaters were Madigan, Crumlich and first baseman Jeff Cusick.
The Mustangs will look to even the series tomorrow night when they face the Anteaters in game two of the series. Right-hander D.J. Mauldin will start for the Mustangs and Christian Bergman will get the start for the Anteaters. Game three will be televised nationally on ESPNU beginning at 2 p.m on Sunday.
Lee said tomorrow’s game is a new opportunity for the Mustangs and has been pleased with the way his players have kept their heads up despite their tough season.
“At this point in the season, they are able to put the past behind them and play hard,” Lee said. “They respect the game which is the number one thing that you want to do and win or lose they can hold their head up.”