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In 2014, the Cal Poly baseball team collected a school-record 47 wins, hosted an NCAA Regional Game and achieved a No. 1 national ranking in some polls. Eight months after a painful loss to Pepperdine in the Regional final, Cal Poly is now ready to continue the winning tradition that has made it one of best programs on the West Coast.
“Last year really put us on the map,” junior pitcher Casey Bloomquist said. “I feel like people know Cal Poly now, and this season people should be intimidated by seeing us on their schedule.”
There is no doubt the team won’t be the same without key players from last year. Nick Torres, Matt Imhof, Chris Hoo, Reed Reilly and Jimmy Allen were all selected in last year’s Major League Baseball draft. New faces will have to step up for Cal Poly to be as dominant as it was last season.
A tougher schedule — with notable away matchups against Baylor, TCU and Oregon State, as well as the always-stout Big West Conference competition — will provide the most effective proving ground. Before the Mustangs open the season at Baylor on Feb. 13, let’s take a look at the team ranked No. 13 in the country by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
The Mustangs have several key parts of their lineup returning for the 2015 season, though they will start the year without junior second baseman Mark Mathias, the Mustangs’ top hitter in 2014. Coming off of surgery to repair the labrum in his right shoulder, Mathias is likely to make his way into the lineup about a month after the season gets going.
“Initially, he will just DH,” head coach Larry Lee said. “Then after a month he is cleared to throw in a game, and then we can gradually get him back in the game. Maybe first base early and then to second base, his natural position.”
In addition to compiling a .410 batting average in conference play and taking Big West Field Player of the Year honors in 2014, Mathias also played with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this past summer and has been chosen for multiple preseason All-American lists this year.
An integral component of last year’s postseason stretch, Zach Zehner, will also bring a dynamic offensive presence. The senior outfielder will be the first to admit that filling the void of Torres, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres, will be a tall task.
“I am going to try my best to do what Nick was doing out there,” Zehner said. “He was a big mentor for me last year. I looked up to the guy a lot, and I am going to try and repeat what he did.”
Zehner is confident he can build on his three home runs and .316 batting average from a year ago. He turned down a seventh-round draft selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in order to come back and wreak havoc in what will be his final season at Cal Poly.
“You get a taste of being on top and you want more of that,” Zehner said.
Additionally, junior Brian Mundell has looked exceptional at the plate during preseason practice. The clean-up hitter started all 59 games last year en route to a second-team All-Big West selection. According to several teammates, Mundell is set to have a huge year at the plate and looks better than ever.
Taking the place of Dodgers-drafted Allen will be junior third baseman John Schuknecht. Schuknecht saw a lot of playing time late last year and is primed for a breakout.
Bloomquist raved about Schuknecht’s progress. “In the offseason and in the fall he has been making huge strides. I feel like he is going to be a key guy for us this year.”
Losing the defensive playmakers from last year could be a cause for concern. The absence of Torres in the outfield, Allen in the infield and Hoo will surely be felt. This year’s team will rely on the steady performances of some of the veterans, as well as the hopeful emergence of some new faces.
One of last year’s cornerstones, Peter Van Gansen, will be a focal point this season. The sure-handed junior shortstop will be following up a season in which he made only eight errors in 241 chances on his way to garnering second-team All-Big West honors. Van Gansen will be turning double plays with junior Ryan Drobny at second base. Drobny is filling in for the injured Mathias while he recovers from surgery.
Another obstacle the Mustangs will have to overcome will be the loss of Hoo, a Rawlings Gold Glove Award-winning catcher. And while this year’s replacement may not gun down would-be base-stealers and make the improbable plays the Marlins-drafted Hoo did, Lee and company are happy with the development of freshman starter Jake Lesinski.
“We have a real solid replacement in Jake Lesinski, who has really developed both defensively as a catcher and on the offensive side” Lee said.
Starting in center field will be the speedy Jordan Ellis. The junior has the innate ability to track down balls in the gap that most outfielders can’t. An equally athletic Zehner is ready to replace Torres’ arm in right field.
The promising Schuknecht will counter the loss of Allen at third base, while the big target of Mundell figures to start at first.
“Pitching is a big question mark,” Lee said. “We return two of our major pieces, Casey Bloomquist, who will be our Friday night starter, and Taylor Chris, our main bullpen guy.”
In order to go on any postseason run, the Mustangs will need quality pitching from both their starting rotation and bullpen. Cal Poly’s major losses include second-round draft pick Imhof and seventh-round draft pick Reilly. Bloomquist and Chris are expected to carry a lot of the load after their breakout campaigns last year.
“I feel strong, I feel confident,” Bloomquist said. “I have been trying to improve since last year, trying to give our team a chance to win. Hopefully we’ll make it to Omaha.”
Sophomores Justin Calomeni and Slater Lee will fill out the top three of the starting rotation, and Lee is hopeful freshman Andrew Bernstein can come in as the occasional Tuesday starter. There is a lot expected of Calomeni and Lee, and all signs point to them being ready to take on the challenge.
“I think Slater Lee and Justin Calomeni are going to take it to the next level,” Zehner said. “That’s what we need as a team; both of them have it in them. They are two of the hardest-working guys.”
Chris, a first-team All-Big West selection, comes back as the leader of a relatively new bullpen. He will be joined by reliever and spot-starter Danny Zandona as they both enter their senior seasons.
Whether its pitching, hitting or fielding, Lee may be forced to turn to some of the younger players on the team in 2015, hoping they can step up among elite level competition.
“The freshmen might not be ready but I think we don’t have a choice … We will see which ones are mentally ready to compete at this level. You are never quite sure until the lights go on for real.”