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The last time Matt Imhof walked off the mound during a regional game, there was no standing ovation.
Almost one year ago on a warm Los Angeles Saturday evening, Cal Poly faced UCLA in the winner’s bracket of the 2013 Los Angeles Regional. Imhof had baffled the Bruins that night. He flirted with perfection, as he retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced and held the eventual national champions hitless through five innings.
But in the sixth inning at Jackie Robinson Stadium, the Mustangs fell apart, along with their playoff hopes and morale. Two UCLA hits and a hit batter left the bases loaded with nobody out.
Imhof, 19 years old with only a few months of full-time collegiate starting pitching experience to his name, was in the midst of his first stab at postseason baseball.
Head coach Larry Lee gave the young left-hander an opportunity to pitch out of that jam, even with stalwart closer Reed Reilly warming up in the bullpen. Imhof eventually got the ground ball he was looking for, but second baseman Denver Chavez couldn’t complete the double play, prompting Imhof’s exit from the game. He walked off the mound in frustration.
Cal Poly would go on to lose that game and meet their postseason demise the next day.
Friday night against Sacramento State, Imhof found himself in a similar position.
In the seventh inning, he loaded the bases with no outs. His pitch count was approaching 100 and a red-hot Reilly — warming up in the bullpen — appeared to be the perfect antidote, but Lee didn’t budge.
Once again, it was Imhof’s mess to clean up.
This time, Imhof — the seasoned ace of Cal Poly’s rotation — needed only a few pitches to get his ground ball. This time, no defensive miscues cost the southpaw his double play as the Mustangs turned two. This time, he got out of the jam en route to a 4-2 win over the Hornets in Cal Poly’s opener at the San Luis Obispo Regional.
Once Lee did make the pitching change, Imhof’s departure from the game was accompanied by a sensational standing ovation that had most of the 2,922 fans at Baggett Stadium erupting. Like most pitchers, Imhof rarely leaves the game under favorable circumstances, but he showed no signs of frustration and tipped his cap to the crowd.
“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium in my entire life,” Imhof said after the game. “It’s one of those things you don’t really get until you get into the postseason.”
He earned the win Friday night, propelling Cal Poly into a winner’s bracket matchup against No. 3 Pepperdine on Saturday.
The Mustangs have seen what a regional winner’s bracket looks like, and their taste of regional baseball is likely a bitter one.
After Friday’s game, Imhof sat in front of a blue NCAA backdrop in a room full of reporters and recognized the familiarity of the scene.
“The last time I was at one of these was UCLA last year,” Imhof said, noting the deflated mood of the previous year’s press conference.
Saturday night is the Mustangs’ chance to revisit that postseason stage, a chance Imhof and his teammates have surely been thinking about for almost a year.