Nearly all of the teams that make the NCAA tournament end their seasons with a loss, of course. So the nation's longest active winning streak—14 games—dates back to last season, when a Cal Poly team that missed out on regionals finished its season with seven straight wins.
A 14-game winning streak is nice, but the Mustangs would have strongly preferred to end their season in the NCAA tournament. Cal Poly figured it had a good chance to get in after going 36-20 in the regular season, and finishing in second place in the Big West at 16-8, just a game behind league champion Cal State Fullerton.
But Poly wound up in the 60s in the Ratings Percentage Index, so it had to endure another at-large snub—an experience that has become too familiar to coach Larry Lee.
"By about the last three weeks of the season, we were really good, and we won 14 of of our last 17, nine of our last 10, seven in a row," Lee said. "I just thought we were playing as well as anyone out here in the West. Our players knew it, I think it carried over to this year, and I also think they understand how difficult it is for Cal Poly to get a regional berth. So in saying that, it's always stressed that every ballgame, no matter what day of the week it is, is important. Home or on the road, we just need to win ballgames. We can't afford to have a subpar nonconference or conference results. So far, so good."
At least the Mustangs were able to build confidence from their strong second half last year. Pitching has carried Cal Poly to a 7-0 start, including a quality sweep at San Francisco and a home sweep of Seattle.
Senior righty Joey Wagman sets the tone on Fridays. Wagman (2-0, 1.50) doesn't have overpowering stuff, living at 86 mph according to Lee, but he mixes four pitches effectively and has abundant confidence. The Mustangs have a pair of prospects behind him in the rotation, with sophomore lefty Matt Imhoff (1-0, 0.00) and sophomore righty Bryan Granger (2-0, 1.93). Lee said both of them have cleaned up their mechanics and improved their stuff since last year.
"Imhoff has developed more than any starter on our staff, and he was our most consistent guy in the fall," Lee said. "He's able to spot his fastball, has developed a much better breaking ball, and is continuing to work on a changeup. He's a deceptive lefthander that is upper 80s, 90ish. He has an extremely high upside."
Lee said the Mustangs were not a very good team on Sundays and Tuesdays last year, but Granger's improvement helps make Poly better on both days, because it allows last year's Sunday starter, senior righty Kyle Brueggeman, to face Poly's stout midweek competition. As he has cleaned up his mechanics, Granger has seen his velocity jump into the 89-92 range. His slider is much better than it was a year ago, and he has the ability to throw a quality changeup, though it can still be inconsistent, Lee said.
The bullpen is anchored by two more good arms: righties Reed Reilly and Michael Holback. Both are three-pitch guys with comparable velocity to Granger's, and they have proven capable of handling high-leverage situations with men on base in the early going. And Taylor Chris has returned from some arm issues to give the 'pen a solid lefty.
If junior righty Chase Johnson can harness his command and his inconsistent secondary stuff, he could give this staff a lift, because he has the biggest arm on the staff, capable of producing mid-90s heat. He has made only one appearance, though, issuing four walks over 1 2/3 innings.
Overall, the Cal Poly pitching staff sports a sparkling 1.29 ERA through seven games, which has helped the Mustangs overcome a somewhat sluggish start by its offense. Cal Poly lost its two best offensive players from a year ago—supplemental first-round pick Mitch Haniger and ninth-round shortstop Mike Miller—so it is natural to expect a slight regression, but the Mustangs should be fine once veterans Tim Wise, David Armendariz and Jimmy Allen find their grooves. Wise, the team's best hitter, is a first baseman who leads off in order to get him as many at-bats as possible, but he has been slowed by a rolled ankle suffered in batting practice before the season opener. In the meantime, catcher Chris Hoo (.500/.563/.857) and scrappy second baseman Denver Chavez (.481/.431/.556) have led the offense so far.
Lee called his club "average" defensively, but freshman shortstop Peter Van Gansen has demonstrated excellent instincts and a strong arm, ably filling Miller's big shoes in the middle infield. And Lee calls Hoo the best receiver and blocker he's had in 30 years of coaching, so at least the Mustangs have a strong core up the middle. And they have fielded at a solid .974 clip so far.
Whether the Mustangs have enough firepower to finish high enough in a reinvigorated Big West to make their second regional (and first since 2009) remains to be seen, but as Lee said, so far, so good.
"We've played some close ballgames and have found ways to win those ballgames," Lee said. "We were hoping our returning position players could make up for the loss of Haniger and Miller, but that's tough because those guys were the main cogs in our offense, and the other players kind of fit in, they were more role guys. They had very good seasons in those roles, and now they're being asked to step up a little bit. It's just been slow with that process. But you'd always rather be strong in the pitching and defense component of the game, because that just means you're in every ballgame in the latter part of the game."
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