Entering the series against No. 4 Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly baseball head coach Larry Lee said his team would need to play near-perfect baseball to compete with the Titans in the most anticipated series of the year.
And in front of the fifth-largest crowd in Baggett Stadium history on Saturday night, the Mustangs saw exactly why. Cal State Fullerton jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the third inning and never looked back as No. 16 Cal Poly dropped the second game of the series 10-5 to the visiting Titans.
“They’re a good team, that’s why they’re the No. 4-ranked team in the country,” Lee said. “We had to play a much cleaner ballgame in a lot of different areas to have a chance to win this ballgame. They pitched better, they played defense better and they swung the bat better than we did tonight.”
The loss sets up arguably the biggest game of the season for the Mustangs (26-10, 7-4 Big West) in tomorrow’s rubber match, starting at 1 p.m. A win on Saturday would have resulted in a tie atop the Big West Conference standings between the two teams. Instead, Cal Poly will try to pull back within one game of the Titans (33-6, 9-2) and salvage a series win.
“Tomorrow, we can win the series and make a big statement,” junior third baseman Jimmy Allen said. “You got to let these games go. It’s all in the past and you just have to move forward and give yourself new opportunities to succeed.”
The Mustangs won’t want déjà vu to set in tomorrow. In 2012, with the series against the Titans tied at 1-1, Cal Poly blew a ninth-inning lead in the final game and eventually lost 5-4. At the end of the season, Cal State Fullerton wound up winning the Big West by a single game over the Mustangs and earned the conference’s lone automatic postseason berth in the process.
On Saturday, missed opportunities to play “perfect” baseball might have been the difference. But at one point, the Mustangs were poised to make a comeback after their early 4-0 hole. Cal Poly rallied with a solo home run in the bottom of the third from junior left fielder David Armendariz and a two-run bomb from freshman designated hitter Brian Mundell cut the Cal State Fullerton lead to 4-3.
Mundell was 1 for his last 31 entering that at-bat, a streak dating back to a March 30 game against UC Davis. The true freshman leads the team with eight home runs this season.
“These last couple of weeks have been pretty hard,” Mundell said. “But it’s a good feeling to get it out of the way and get back to where I stopped.”
But the Mustangs couldn’t cash in on many more of those opportunities as they left two men on base in the sixth and eighth innings. Sophomore right fielder Nick Torres hit a sacrifice fly that scored second baseman Denver Chavez in the sixth frame and Chavez tacked on an RBI single to right field in the ninth inning that cut the deficit to five.
“You have to create your opportunities offensively every single inning,” Allen said. “We were in the game, but, at the end, they started hitting the ball hard and we weren’t. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Cal State Fullerton broke the game open in the seventh inning due to a rare defensive miscue by Chavez at second base. He bobbled a ground ball that would have ended the inning, but instead the Titans pounced on the error for three unearned runs.
“With the quality of pitching that they have, we were going to have to try to keep it close and do something offensively late in the ballgame, but we just didn’t have that opportunity as the game got out of hand,” Lee said.
Sophomore southpaw Matt Imhof got the loss dropping his record to 4-2 on the year, while Cal State Fullerton’s Matt Garza remained undefeated at 8-0 with the win.