After posting their 37-21 record a season ago, the Mustangs (18-30, 8-13 Big West) had nothing but high expectations for this campaign.
But the Mustangs struggled out of the gate, dropping four of their first 10 games. After bringing their record to .500 after a sweep of Northern Illinois, the Mustangs plummeted. They lost 21 of their next 25 games, didn’t win their first weekend series until May and have yet to hold a winning record. Runs were hard to score, pitches couldn’t find the strike zone and errors were riddling the Cal Poly defense.
But then things changed. After being swept by Cal State Fullerton, RBIs started lighting up the box scores, the team’s ERA started to drop and the Mustangs found ways to get on base. Now, after firing off eight wins in their last 12 games, the Mustangs can lessen the pain of falling short of the postseason.
“It’s a good feeling,” head coach Larry Lee said. “It’s a good feeling in the dugout, a lot more positive energy. It’s nice to see.”
They just hope they can keep the wheels turning when they square off against Pacific (30-18, 11-7 Big West), a team ranked third in the Big West.
“We’ve played fairly well for the last month,” Lee said. “At given times during each game or each series, we’ve done some things pretty well … Offensively, we’ve really stepped it up to a different level …It’s good experience for a number of players.”
Coming into the weekend, the Tigers dropped a non-conference series at the hands of Cal State Bakersfield. The Mustangs pitching staff will be tested as Pacific brings in the second-best hitting attack in the Big West, with a .329 team batting average. The Mustangs will be looking to control Pacific’s duo of second baseman J.B. Brown, who currently sits third in the Big West with a .401 average, and first baseman Brian Martin, who owns a .382 average on the year. The duo ranks second and third in the Big West in hits as Brown has accumulated 79, while Martin has 78.
The Tigers’ pitching staff sits in the middle of the pack of the conference, sporting a 5.19 team ERA. They are led by junior right-hander Marcus Pointer, senior left-hander David Rowse and junior right-hander Jake Hummel. All three pitchers are tied for a team leading seven wins and senior closer Hunter Carnevale leads the team with a 2.62 ERA and four saves.
The Tigers have won eight of their last 11 games and are looking to catch second-place UC Irvine; they trail by one game.
When the Mustangs looked close to barely scraping out 10 wins, Cal Poly is now on pace to surpass 20. But the success can be viewed as a double-edged sword. Wins or not, Cal Poly has to stay thirsty for more.
Lee has that kind of mindset. The current winning streak has not blinded him to the problems his team is still struggling with.
“I think we are still kind of limited with the options we can go to,” Lee said. “Pitching-wise, we are still not where we need to be. We just don’t have that quality or depth that we really need to make a strong impact in the Big West.”
The Mustangs pitching staff has struggled all season long, as the Mustangs own the worst team ERA in the Big West at 6.81. But they have been winning due to their hitting. Over their past 12 games, the Mustangs have posted 153 hits and a team batting average of .331. For the season, the Mustangs boast a .292 average and are led by freshman Mitch Haniger with a .327 batting average.
Another key contributor has been outfielder Luke Yoder. In his final season playing for the Mustangs, he has hit .324 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs. But in his four-year stint with Cal Poly, he has added more than just numbers for the Mustangs.
“Luke has been great,” Lee said. “He is very level headed—very much in control. He has had some real good seasons. This is probably his best season; he has put up some good numbers … He has really solidified our lead-off spot. He has added a lot to the program, added class. It’s been great.”
Yoder is currently undergoing the end of his résumé process for the majors. With his senior year nearly finished, the next step in the Yoder baseball saga is the pros. Not many get a chance to play a sport professionally, but Lee sees his starting outfielder as pro-ready.
“Yoder should be,” Lee said. “He and (catcher Ross) Brayton — as seniors — should be drafted. (But,) some of the draft-eligible juniors that we thought would be drafted probably won’t. They just didn’t have that type of a season that they needed to.”
Lee could be hinting at players like juniors J.J. Thomspon and DJ Gentile, who have both seen drops in their statistics from 2009 to 2010. Thompson, who hit .292 a year ago, is hitting.270 this season and Gentile, who hit .304 a year ago, is now hitting .184. Another offseason may be the remedy they need to help them get back to the players they were a year ago — or maybe even better.
“We should have a lot of guys back that we didn’t expect back (for next season),” Lee said. “Hopefully they can take that as some motivation, work hard in the offseason and come back as the player they want to become.”
The books for 2010 still aren’t closed. Thompson, Gentile and the rest of the Mustangs still have chances to improve a season that began with high expectations. But they will have to do so against Pacific this weekend.
First pitch is set for Friday at 6 p.m.
— Brian De Los Santos and Patrick Leiva contributed to this report.