It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
In the ninth inning of Sunday afternoon’s rubber game, the Cal Poly baseball team held a 3-0 lead over UC Santa Barbara with one out and nobody on base. Nearly everyone from the 1,324 in attendance to the players at Baggett Stadium wanted to chalk up the win and go home.
Instead, the Mustangs let their lead slip away en route to an agonizing 5-3 loss, giving the series 2-1 to the Gauchos.
“That’s baseball,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “The game can hinge on one pitch. But there’s no excuse for giving up that lead.”
That pitch came in the ninth inning from sophomore right-hander D.J. Mauldin. After allowing one run and walking Steve Cook to load the bases, Gauchos leadoff man Brian Gump hit a grand slam to straightaway center field, making the score 5-3.
The Mustangs were unable to recover, as right-hander Michael Martin retired the side for UCSB (29-13, 8-4 Big West Conference), which defeated the Mustangs in a three-game conference series for the first time in five years.
Cal Poly (18-22, 6-9 Big West), which has struggled to close out games, surrendered a 7-1 advantage at No. 7 Cal on Tuesday in a 10-8 loss.
“This kind of thing is why UC Santa Barbara is in contention for the Big West title and we’re not,” Lee said.
The game started promisingly for Cal Poly, as sophomore right-hander Steven Fischback pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing only four hits, no walks and striking out nine.
“I felt great out there,” Fischback said. “I had a couple pitches working, and everything was going my way. It just all went right.”
Lee praised Fischback’s performance.
“That was probably the best outing we’ve had all season, especially against such a solid lineup,” he said.
However, after 123 pitches, Lee added, there was “no question” about pulling Fischback and putting Mauldin (4-5) in for the ninth.
“He was the best available guy,” Lee explained.
Though the Mustangs were able to score three times off of Gauchos southpaw Chuck Huggins, the ninth inning put a spotlight on some earlier missed opportunities.
The most glaring of them was in the eighth. After Cal Poly loaded the bases with no outs, Martin retired junior third basemen Brent Morel on a force play at the plate before getting a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of sophomore designated hitter Luke Yoder.
Martin (4-2) picked up the win on the strength of two scoreless innings of relief, allowing no hits and no walks.
“It probably gave (UCSB) momentum, and kept them within striking distance,” Lee said of not scoring in the eighth frame. “There are only so many times you can say, ‘Next game we’ll do better,’ but you still have to bounce back. It’s the nature of the game.”
Cal Poly continues its homestand by hosting USC (20-22) at 6 p.m. Tuesday.