Graig Mantle

There is little question that Thomas Eager has been the Cal Poly baseball team’s most productive starting pitcher this season.

But it does not bother the sophomore right-hander to be starting on Sundays – typically reserved for No. 3 starters – instead of Friday nights like most staff aces across the country.

“Even though there’s the aura of being the ace on Friday nights,” Eager explained, “I feel Sunday’s just as important because you’re either trying to win a series, sweep a series or not get swept, so I feel like there’s pressure on the Sunday starter as well. I kind of like that pressure. . I enjoy pitching on Sundays because you get to see the lineup two times around.”

Opponents haven’t enjoyed having to face Eager, who boasts a 7-2 record and 2.94 ERA. He also leads the club in innings pitched (82 2/3) and strikeouts (69) and has held opponents to a .219 batting average in addition to throwing the staff’s only complete game.

Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said Monday that he expects to continue using Eager in the Sunday starter role, but that he could be available to close on a Friday night if need be.

“We haven’t had to use him in that Friday night closer role, but it’s a little bit of comfort knowing that you have him,” Lee said. “He’s in real good shape. . We have probably our strongest pitcher at the end of our rotation. If you put all your eggs in one basket and lose Friday 3-1, you really put yourself in trouble Saturday and Sunday.”

Cal Poly is likely to go with a similar plan this weekend when it hosts UC Riverside for a three-game Big West Conference series at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Mustangs (20-18, 7-2 Big West) entered the national rankings for the first time this season Monday when Collegiate Baseball Newspaper released its weekly poll with Cal Poly No. 29 on the 30-team list.

Although four teams in the Big West have better overall records, the Mustangs still sit in first place. The overall record is due largely to a six-game stretch that saw the Mustangs get swept by both No. 11 Oregon State and No. 12 Rice.

According to BoydsWorld.com, which uses a simulation of the NCAA’s secret Ratings Percentage Index formula to predict what teams will reach the postseason, Cal Poly has the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation.

Although the Web site ranks the Mustangs 75th in terms of RPI, all eight Big West teams are in the 12 toughest schedules in the country. The conference itself ranks sixth-best among 31 Division I conferences.

“We did play a very tough nonconference schedule for as young a team as we are,” Eager said.

All the more reason these games in Big West play are crucial for a Mustangs team trying to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since moving to the Division I level in 1995.

“Losing so many nonconference games, I still feel like we have to win the Big West to get a regional berth,” Lee said.

Eager added: “I feel like we could have taken two of three from Rice. We just didn’t come through like we could have. We didn’t play well against Oregon State. We didn’t put our best foot forward against them. Against Irvine, I don’t think we really went in there thinking about ranked teams. We just went in as a conference team. We need to win the conference or be one of the top two (Big West) teams to get to a regional.”

That process resumes Friday, at which time right-hander Eric Massingham (1-0, 5.11 ERA) is likely to get the start for Cal Poly with reliever Derrick Saito sharing a heavy portion of the workload.

“Massingham came in and really established his fastball well,” Eager said. “He was able to work both sides of the plate. Off-speed wasn’t really there, but he didn’t really need it. He was able to relax a little bit knowing that he had a 4-0 lead.

“Then bringing in Saito, he throws so many curveballs, the things break two feet, and they’re pretty much unhitable. If it’s those two guys, it’s a pretty tough matchup for anybody. We’ve got a good left-hander and a pretty good righty coming at you.”

But behind the Mustangs’ success as much as anybody has been center fielder Grant Desme, who leads Cal Poly in batting average (.408), runs (43), hits (60), home runs (12), RBI (44), total bases (109), walks (22), on-base percentage (.491) and steals (7).

When asked where Desme stacks up in comparison to the best players the program has seen since his arrival as head coach in 2002, Lee said the junior is “very close to the top.”

“He’s what I would call a guy who could play on a national championship team,” Lee said. “He’s that caliber of baseball player. He’s been locked in every series except one. He’s really carried us. His 12 home runs, he plays in a non-home run ballpark at Baggett Stadium, so what he’s done makes it that much more special.

“If you watch him day in, day out, and just watch how patient he is, he sits on pitches, hits breaking balls. He just continues to get better and better. He’ll be a high draft pick. Everywhere we go, there’s organizations watching him and taking notes. His future’s very bright. He means a lot to us offensively, but I think a lot of our success at the plate has been our 1-2 hitters. (Logan) Schafer and (Kyle) Smith have really started to swing the bat well and set the table.”

Indeed, players like Brent Morel (.328, four homers, 23 RBI), Schafer (.311, 17 RBI) and Luke Yoder (.305) have been doing damage at the plate.

They will have to do it Friday against one of the most promising arms in the country – UC Riverside right-hander James Simmons (7-2, 2.20 ERA).

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