In its last series of the 2019 season, Cal Poly Baseball was fighting for a spot in a NCAA regional tournament against Blue-Green rival UC Santa Barbara. After winning the first two games of the three-day weekend series, the Mustangs had forced a must-win scenario for both squads on Sunday. Unfortunately, Cal Poly was unable to secure the sweep and the Big West Conference Championship after the Gauchos won the final game by a score of 7-0.
The loss resulted in Cal Poly’s third-straight second-place finish in the Big West standings. However, the team said it is ready to bounce back from a tough ending to an up-and-down 2019 season.
Among the returning players who took part in last year’s hard-fought series against UC Santa Barbara is junior pitcher Taylor Dollard, who pitched a career-high six innings in relief to help secure a 4-3 victory in game two.
“For the most part, I just remember being able to compete and everybody on the team having each other’s back,” Dollard said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win the series, but we gave ourselves a really good opportunity when I think a lot of people had counted us out.”
While the heartbreaking season-ending may have stung at the time, this year’s squad said it is using the loss to fuel them.
“Knowing we were so close has motivated us even more for this year,” senior outfielder Bradley Beesley said. “We know that the conference is up for grabs, and we’re excited to get it going.”
Junior infielder Tate Samuelson is another returning Mustang who said he has not forgotten about last year’s shortcomings in Santa Barbara. Samuelson echoed Beesley and said the defeat will work in the team’s favor this season.
“A lot of guys have a fire under them to get back to a game like that,” Samuelson said.
Although the team still has a chip on its shoulder from the final series of 2019, the 2020 squad will look a bit different than last year’s. Seven former Mustangs are no longer on the squad’s current roster for a variety of reasons that do not include graduation, according to head coach Larry Lee. Despite the losses, the Mustangs added seven incoming freshman who could be the difference between the team’s fourth consecutive second-place finish and a Big West Conference title.
“I think the freshmen are the difference this year,” Samuelson said. “We’ve got a really good group of guys and all of them are going to contribute a lot to the team. I’m pretty confident that they are going to get the job done when their name is called upon.”
One freshman who the Mustangs hope to feel an immediate impact from is shortstop Brooks Lee, the son of baseball head coach Larry Lee. Brooks hit .405 during his senior year of high school and was drafted by the Giants in the 35th round of the MLB Draft, but he opted to pursue his athletic and academic career at Cal Poly.
“[Brooks] knows what his dad wants out of him and what he wants out of this team,” Samuelson said. “It’s really big to have somebody of his talent level who’s dialed in enough for the team to be able to produce not only on the field but off the field.”
The Mustangs are also returning 10 out of 11 position players who started at least 20 games last season. The mix of youth players and established starters has created interesting position battles to keep an eye on.
“I think Coach [Lee] is [going to] have a good predicament on his hands,” Samuelson said. “He’s [going to] have to make some decisions on what bats he wants in the lineup to start the year, because we’ve got guys that are good enough to contribute.”
Some of Cal Poly’s returning veterans include junior outfielder Elijah Greene, senior catcher Myles Emmerson, junior third baseman Nick DiCarlo, Beesley and Samuelson. Emmerson earned All-Big West honorable mention praise last season after leading the Mustangs in conference games with a .377 batting average, while Greene was the only Mustang to start and play in all 56 games in 2019.
Cal Poly was picked to finish second-place in this year’s 2020 Big West Conference Baseball Coaches Poll and gathered two first-place votes as well. While the Mustangs have not won a Big West title since 2014, that is not stopping the players from believing they can exceed expectations and end the season on the top of
“I really feel like this is the year for us to take first-place,” Beesley said. “Us having all the guys returning, plus all of the new additions … I think that it’s a good year for us to take it all the way.”