LOS ANGELES—The boisterous Cal Poly cheering section behind the third-base dugout was in an uproar. Several green-clad Poly fans turned incredulous, indignant stares at the Jackie Robinson Stadium press box. Others approached the press box and hollered, “It’s San Luis Obispo, not Pomona! It’s the Mustangs!”
The players also heard the PA announcer introduce them as the Cal Poly Pomona Broncos. For a very solid program that often flies under the national radar and entered Friday seeking its first-ever NCAA tournament victory, the slight added a little more fuel to the fire.
“I was down the line warming up, and I was with our pitching coach and our catcher, Elliot Stewart,” said Mustangs ace Joey Wagman. “We weren’t mad, but we had that look on our face like, ‘That’s pretty standard, Cal Poly not getting the recognition we deserve.’ Hopefully a performance like this will turn some heads.”
Coaches in Southern California have long recognized Cal Poly coach Larry Lee as one of the best in the region, and his tough-luck program has been the victim of repeated at-large snubs over the years. This year, the Mustangs put together a strong No. 2 seed resume to cruise into regionals, and they got the monkey off their back Friday, earning their first-ever NCAA tourney win, 9-2 against third-seeded San Diego.
“I think you need to give Cal Poly credit,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said. “Wagman’s a competitor, we’ve seen him over the course of a few years. Big game, big-time performance. I think coach Lee and his staff do a great job. It was evident from walking in for (batting practice)—his guys are so disciplined at the plate, their strokes are short, and they came to play today. Hats off to them.”
Lee said pitching has carried his team all season long, and Wagman (8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER) turned in a characteristically gritty performance, keeping USD hitters off balance by mixing speeds and locations with four pitches. But the big story for Cal Poly on Friday was the performance of its offense, which broke open a 3-2 game with six runs in the sixth to chase USD freshman lefty P.J. Conlon. The big blows were two-run singles by Brian Mundell and Jimmy Allen.
Cal Poly’s lineup is loaded with talent, but a number of its key players have underperformed this season, including Mundell and Allen. The powerful Mundell got off to a big start in nonconference play but hit just .210 with three long balls in the Big West. Allen hit .345/.372/.507 as a sophomore but slumped for much of his junior season before heating up down the stretch to carry a .292/.327/.369 line into the postseason.
Mundell gave the Mustangs a jolt of confidence with a massive solo home run off the center-field batter’s eye in the first inning, finishing the day 2-for-4 with two runs and four RBIs. Allen went 4-for-5 with two RBIs. That duo led the offense, and that’s an encouraging sign that Cal Poly’s offense is running close to peak ability.
“Some of our main guys haven’t been productive enough offensively,” Lee said. “You write out a lineup on paper, it looks great . . . Jimmy had a great game, you hope that carries over. Your offense and your hitting are contagious. If you have a couple key guys swinging the bat, it takes the pressure off everybody else. We rarely out-hit people—this was uncharacteristic.”
The Mustangs reached the 40-win plateau for the third time in program history, and the first time since 1991. Wagman improved to 13-3, setting a school record for victories in a season. And, of course, Poly finally has an NCAA tournament under its belt. It was a big day for Cal Poly baseball—that’s Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“You work so hard just to get this opportunity to play in the postseason, and yeah, you want to take advantage of it,” Lee said. “We talked yesterday as a team, had some words, and I think the confidence level was high, and you kind of sense that as a coach. It was great to come out here and play well. That’s what you don’t want to do is play well all season, then come here to the postseason and have the wheels fall off the cart. So it’s a good feeling, and now our players know what to expect. They have a good sense what the regionals are all about.”