Cal Poly baseball head coach Larry Lee has an optimistic outlook on the 2010 season.
“This has a chance to be possibly the best team that I have had since I’ve been here,” Lee said.
The Mustangs clinched a NCAA Regional Tournament Berth for the first time in school history last year. The Mustangs had 10 batters hitting above .300 and they finished one win shy of a school record. They were featured in the national rankings for 13-consecutive weeks and marked the seventh time in the past 10 seasons that Cal Poly tallied a 30-win season.
Yet, Lee said this year’s team has a chance to be better.
“If all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place this is a real balanced team, offensively, defensively and pitching wise,” Lee said.
But, there is a catch — pitching.
“It all depends on the pitching,” Lee said. “We haven’t been at full strength on the mound the last two years … Good pitching hides any weakness you have.”
The Mustangs have three pitchers heading into next season battling arm injuries. Starting pitcher Steven Fischback missed all of the 2009 season after undergoing pre-season shoulder surgery. Fischback, who is considered by Lee to be the team’s best pitcher, is expected to return to the mound this season.
“I’ll start the season still recovering, still building up arm strength. I should be healthy, if all goes well, by mid-season,” Fischback said.
Last season, the Mustangs held four starting pitchers in their weekly rotation that held a combined average 5.69 ERA. Out of that group, DJ Mauldin held the lowest ERA with a 4.75 and Matt Leonard held the highest ERA with a 7.68.
A year of experience is what senior catcher Ross Brayton said will help see those numbers go down.
“I mean last year (we) got a chance to see what other team’s had,” he said. “The good teams had those few extra pitchers. Besides the starters, they had those guys in the bullpen that they could turn to in crucial situations. We have those guys this year.”
Off the mound, Cal Poly returns six batters who hit above .300 last year. Despite the losses of RBI-hounds Adam Buschini and Wes Dorrell, Lee speaks highly of his projected line-up.
“It’s probably a better line-up offensively than last year,” Lee said. “It is a well-rounded line-up.”
Sophomore Matt Jensen accumulated a .375 batting average with nine home runs and 53 RBI. In a series against University of San Francisco, Jensen collided with Travis Higgs while sprinting from first to second. The collision benched Jensen for the last 13 games of the season. In that stretch the Mustangs went 7-6 after recording a 30-15 record prior to that contest. Despite missing nearly half the year, Jensen was awarded with All-Big West honors.
“I thought I had a good year,” Jensen said. “I just tried to help contribute to the team — day in and day out.”
Although Jensen won fans heart’s at the plate, he said that his defense is something that he wanted to improve heading into next year.
“Defense has been my downfall. I had a lot of time this summer to start working getting back in shape. I hope I improved a little bit,” he said.
Away from the plate, the slugger may be called on as a reliever out of the Mustangs bullpen.
Jensen was a pitcher and second baseman at Clorvis East High School but did not take the mound as a Mustang last year. As a pitcher in 2008, he went 5-3 with a 2.29 ERA, while he hit .458 with eight home runs as a second baseman.
Brayton will join him on the All-Big West team. He transferred from Modesto College at the start of last season and hit .393 with 28 RBIs in his first season as a Mustang.
“I just want to go out there and have fun,” Brayton said. “I mean I am a senior this year. I just want to play hard and not take any days for granted. This could be the last time I ever step on a baseball field.”
The Mustangs will take on a Big-West Conference that sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in 2009 — Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Cal Poly. The Big West also had 46 players selected in the three-day, 50-round Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft last year. Outside of their conference, Cal Poly will play 11 games against five different Pac-10 schools that combined for a 139-119 record last season.
“The Big West is one of the best baseball conferences in the country,” Lee said. “We play as good of a schedule as anyone.”
As confident as Lee is in his team, he’s not one for predictions.
“You really don’t know what you have until the lights go on for real,” Lee said.
Cal Poly starts their season on Feb.19 in Baggett Stadium.