Senior catcher Chris Hoo has started in 45 of Cal Poly's 47 games this season headed into this weekend's series. | Ian Billings/Mustang News

Evan Morter

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The No. 5 Cal Poly baseball team will host arguably the biggest Big West series of the year this weekend as No. 16 UC Irvine travels to Baggett Stadium in a battle for first place in the conference standings.

UC Irvine (33-14, 14-1 Big West) took advantage of the Mustangs’ recent four-game skid to take a 1.5 game lead over Cal Poly (39-9, 14-4) in the conference.

Three of the Mustangs’ four losses last week came against conference foes, while the Anteaters have won 12 consecutive Big West games.

Cal Poly remains in the top 10 nationally in four of the five major polls, and UC Irvine has moved as high as No. 16.

The Mustangs relish the opportunity ahead, sophomore designated hitter Brian Mundell said.

“This is going to be the biggest series of the year for us,” he said. “It’s going to be the battle for the conference championship. Now that we’re back down, we have to prove ourselves again. We play our best baseball at home.”

The team is on a mission to preserve its 25-2 home record and earn its first-ever regional bid at Baggett Stadium.

“It’s a must,” head coach Larry Lee said. “To give us the best possible chance to be successful in the playoffs, that’s what we need to do. But our guys understand that, and it’s easier said than done.”

The Mustangs are projected to host a regional round at Baggett Stadium, according to ESPN. All regional sites will be announced on May 26 on ESPNU.

As the club awaits Selection Monday, Cal Poly has three weeks and six conference games remaining, followed by a bye week to end the regular season.

“It was a tough stretch to go through,” Lee said. “We lost our identity. We were always the hunters. We always played with a chip on our shoulder and played for respect. But once we reached the so-called top or pinnacle, we kind of changed our personality and we didn’t respond to it very well.”

Few teams make it through the year without a losing streak, but now that the Mustangs have experienced one, the team is thrilled to have made it out of the tunnel, Lee said.

“We’ve been resilient all year and it was good to get out of that funk as soon as possible, but we still have work ahead of us,” he said.

The preparation for the Anteaters’ arrival will have to be well-rounded as the Cal Poly pitching staff allowed 26 runs during its streak and only scored nine in that stretch.

Since then, the pitching staff has allowed just eight runs, and the offense has produced 19 runs in three games.

“Now we understand again who we are and what we want to accomplish,” Lee said. “We’re feeling good about ourselves again.”

The last game of the series on Sunday will signal the final home game of the regular season as the Mustangs’ final four games will be on the road, where they are 14-7 on the year.

Friday night’s game will feature a pair of the Big West’s top pitchers as Cal Poly’s junior southpaw Matt Imhof (8-3, 2.47 ERA) will face Andrew Morales (8-0, 0.91 ERA) on the hill. Imhof is coming off his shortest career outing, while Morales boasts a spotless 18-0 record in his career at UC Irvine.

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