Jefferson P. Nolan
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Matt Imhof’s stomach is always uneasy when he wakes up on Friday morning.
The business administration junior makes a hearty breakfast, watches television and listens to a “pregame” playlist on his iPod.
For Imhof, it’s a ritual.
But when the Fremont, Calif. native makes his way to the clubhouse at Baggett Stadium, the nerves begin to fade away.
At about 3 in the afternoon, Imhof, Cal Poly’s premier starting pitcher, mentally prepares for the game.
“When I get to the field, I start to dial in,” Imhof said. “I like to do the same thing; the routine helps calm the nerves a little bit.”
On Friday, the Mustangs’ ace will perform this routine again.
But this time, Imhof (9-4) will lead the Cal Poly baseball team in the most important start of his college career against Sacramento State (39-22) as the Mustangs host an NCAA Regional for the first time in its 20-year history in Division I baseball.
When the southpaw takes the mound against the Hornets, major-league scouts equipped with radar guns will group around the home plate backstop, and the fans at the jam-packed Baggett Stadium will see an expressionless, emotionless pitcher on the mound.
But unbeknownst to most, Imhof’s composure on the bump is a far cry from his personality off the field.
Described by fellow pitcher Michael Dingilian simply as a “giant goofball,” it is remarkable that Imhof’s outlandish personality belongs to the same stoic athlete who helped lead the No. 5 Mustangs to their first Big West Conference title in program history.
“Off the field, he’s such a funny guy, and he jokes around a ton,” second baseman Mark Mathias said. “But when it comes time for his Friday start, his nose is forward, his head is straight and his eyes are just so focused. You can’t get anything past him.
Mathias met Imhof at 8 years old, while playing travel baseball in Fremont. But even out of high school, the athlete was radically dissimilar from the pitcher he has become.
In fact, Imhof barely gave Cal Poly a second thought until he was rejected by his dream school, Stanford.
“I thought I was getting in (to Stanford) at one point, but then I ended up not being accepted,” Imhof said. “I was pretty upset about that, but I ended up coming to Cal Poly. It is the best decision I could have made; the best three years of my life have been here at Cal Poly.”
In high school, he excelled academically, but Imhof did not take pitching seriously until his sophomore year at Mission San Jose High School. Even then, he lacked the mentoring he needed to shine on the baseball diamond. That was when Cal Poly pitching coach Thomas Eager changed everything.
“After I first saw Matt pitch, I told him, ‘You can be as good as you want to be. You have a chance to be one of the highest draft picks out of Cal Poly and possibly in the big leagues,’” Eager said. “I said to him, ‘Matt, I’ll be at your first game if you go on to pitch in the big leagues.’”
It didn’t happen immediately, but Eager and Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee helped guide the young athlete to be a dominant force on the mound.
“In high school, he didn’t have much success,” Eager said. “He was a smart kid, but he just didn’t know who he was on the mound. Now, I feel like he’s found himself. He used to be a big nerd.”
After mostly pitching in relief in his freshman year, Imhof began to develop a presence on the mound. In 2013, Imhof posted a 7-3 record and a 2.74 ERA as Cal Poly’s Saturday starter.
With an increase in his velocity, Imhof realized he could use his fastball to his advantage.
From the batters’ box, the baseball appears to come out of the lefty’s ear. The southpaw’s interesting arm slot and downward throwing motion allows the ball to cross the strike zone at a unique angle.
“I’ve always thrown a little bit funky,” Imhof said. “All left-handers throw a little bit weird, but that’s just the way I throw.”
Following a successful sophomore year, Imhof earned a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National 24-man roster. As Cal Poly’s first Team USA member since the Mustangs’ move to Division I baseball, Imhof recorded an impressive 3-0 record in six appearances and a 0.53 ERA after competing against Teams Japan and Cuba.
“I loved every minute of it,” Imhof said of his experience with the national team. “You just get really proud when you hear the national anthem and when you have ‘USA’ across your chest. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m so thankful that I was able to get it.”
Though Eager was one of the first to profess his confidence in the lefty, Imhof proved to himself with Team USA that he could play and win against the best in the game.
In the 2014 campaign, Imhof has recorded a team-best 120 strikeouts, and he set a Cal Poly record earlier this season when he struck out 15 batters against Seattle in early March.
After watching Imof embrace the pressure and responsibility of a Friday starter, Lee anticipates this season will be Imhof’s last hurrah in college baseball before he turns professional.
“Matt will be a really high draft pick,” Lee said. “He’ll sign.”
But even now, three years into his college career and with his most important start to date looming closer and closer, Eager still reminds Imhof of what he used to be.
“(Matt) will walk by and I’ll say, ‘Hey Matt, remember who you are … You’re a big nerd,’” Eager said.