Cal Poly, swept by No. 2 Cal State Fullerton last weekend at Goodwin Field, continues its quest for a third-place Big West finish by hosting UC Santa Barbara for a three-game series at Baggett Stadium (cap.: 1,734). The Mustangs and Gauchos play Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Coach Larry Lee’s Mustangs (27-26, 8-10 Big West), ranked as high as No. 22 by Baseball America this season, opened the 2006 campaign by sweeping Fresno State before a series total of 5,735 fans, the second largest total for a three-game series at Baggett Stadium. It marked the second straight year that Cal Poly had swept the Bulldogs. The Mustangs then hit the road for their next nine games and posted 2-1 series wins over San Jose State, Loyola Marymount and San Diego State.
Since that 9-2 start, however, Cal Poly has won just 18 of 39 games, dropping out of the polls. The Mustangs won five of six games after losing their Big West opener to Pacific, but lost conference series’ to UC Irvine, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton to fall off the pace.
Cal Poly lost three games to the Titans by a total of five runs – 6-4, 3-1 and 1-0 – getting strong pitching by all three starters, but failing to produce hits in key situations, leaving 24 runners on the basepaths, including 12 on Saturday. Senior first baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand was 4-for-9 in the series while freshman outfielder Corey Barthel was 3-for-7.
UC Santa Barbara (25-26, 8-10), coached by Bob Brontsema (13th season, 347-346), already has two victories over Cal Poly this season – a 12-inning 8-7 decision that took three days to complete and another 8-7 verdict, both wins posted March 12. Brontsema guided the Gauchos to NCAA regional appearances in 1996 and 2001 and he ranks second in the Big West in career wins among active coaches. Brontsema is in his 25th season with the UCSB baseball program – two as a player, 10 as an assistant coach and 13 as head coach.
The Gauchos have been as low as four games under the .500 mark and was one game above .500 just once, winning the season opener against Westmont College. UCSB has won nine of its last 15 games. Top Gaucho hitters to date are junior shortstop Chris Valaika (.341, 10 home runs, 57 RBIs), sophomore second baseman Alden Carrithers (.339, 6-11 SBs) and junior first baseman Robbie Blauer (.335). Both Valaika and Blauer have 10-game hitting streaks. The Gauchos are hitting .289 as a team with 31 home runs and have stolen 30 of 49 bases.
UC Santa Barbara has a 103-81 advantage in its series against Cal Poly dating back to 1942. The two teams played a three-game non-conference series in mid-March – the Gauchos posting a pair of 8-7 victories in Santa Barbara and the Mustangs winning 6-2 at Baggett Stadium. Cal Poly won five of the six meetings last year and four of six in 2004. Larry Lee is 11-7 against the Gauchos while Bob Brontsema is 29-28 against the Mustangs.
Cal Poly has 39 home runs in 53 games this season, best in the Big West, and a .281 team batting average, No. 3 in the conference. Junior third baseman Josh Lansford leads the Mustangs and is No. 3 in the Big West offensively with a .360 average. His 16-game hitting streak was snapped last week. Junior catcher Matt Canepa is next at .337. Senior first baseman/right fielder Jimmy Van Ostrand, 10-for-21 in his last six games, is hitting .295; he leads Cal Poly and the Big West with 13 home runs to go with his team-leading 49 RBIs.
Lee, in his fourth season as Mustang mentor with a 128-97-2 career mark, guided Cal Poly in 2005 to a tie for second place in the Big West Conference with Long Beach State, both 14-7 and two games behind 2004 national champion Cal State Fullerton. The Mustangs and 49ers both finished 36-20 overall, but Cal Poly was denied an NCAA Tournament berth.
Regional hosts will be announced Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPNews and the 64-team bracket will be released Monday at 9:30 a.m. on ESPN.