Look Out For: Cal Poly Shows Upside With Strong Opening Weekend
Throughout the season Baseball America will spotlight a team to look out for. One that isn’t prominent in the Top 25 discussion, but one that has the potential to make noise in a regional.
After leading Vanderbilt, the reigning national champion and Preseason No. 1 team, for much of Sunday’s finale at the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields in Talking Stick, Ariz., Cal Poly suddenly found itself down a run in the ninth inning. The Commodores had scored six runs in the last two innings and now had Preseason All-American closer Tyler Brown on the mound to try to finish out the victory.
At the end of a long weekend, having just taken a gut punch as they watched their five-run eighth inning lead evaporate, the Mustangs might have folded, might have gone quietly in the ninth inning and gone home after coming up just short against one of the nation’s elite teams.
Instead, eight-hole hitter Myles Emmerson led off the inning with a double. Pinch-hitter Elijah Greene followed with a single and both runners moved up on an error. The rally was on. Cole Cabrera tied the game with a sacrifice fly and, after another error and an intentional walk, Tate Samuelson hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to win the game, 9-8.
The victory gave Cal Poly a 2-1 record in the tournament, following a 5-0 Opening Day victory against Connecticut and an 8-5 loss against Michigan. For the Mustangs to complete a winning weekend in the premier Opening Weekend tournament was significant. For the Mustangs to do it in the way they did, was also important for coach Larry Lee.
“Winning the way we did, I think it builds character and it builds self-confidence and it shows you if everybody does their part good things can happen,” he said.
For Cal Poly, Sunday’s victory is something it can lean on all season long, both mentally and as a building block on its NCAA Tournament resume.
The Mustangs have some experience on the roster, led by senior center fielder Bradlee Beesley, who has played in nearly every game of his college career. But they also have a lot of newcomers. They brought in a large, talented recruiting class and are looking to those players right away. Freshman third baseman Nick Marinconz started all three games this weekend. Freshman righthander Drew Thorpe started Sunday’s game and held Vanderbilt to two runs in seven innings.
With so many newcomers playing important roles, the Mustangs need to learn how to play – and win – close games. What better time for that education to begin than against Vanderbilt on Opening Weekend?
“It’s good early in the season to win a one-run ballgame,” Lee said.” It’s good early in the season to come from behind to win a ballgame on a walk-off fashion.
“Those things later on in the season, they’ve been there. Now they have to learn from them and understand how they were feeling mentally and to play the full game.”
For Cal Poly, the tangible benefit to its NCAA Tournament resume from Sunday’s comeback win is also significant. It has finished second in the Big West in three straight seasons but hasn’t been able to convert that into a regionals appearance. The Mustangs last made the NCAA tournament field in 2014.
The Mustangs have been held back by their non-conference performance. They play the kind of ambitious schedule that can build a strong RPI, but they haven’t been able to win enough of those games. Twice in the last three years they finished 28-28 and once won 30 games. It just hasn’t been enough.
But this year, Cal Poly’s schedule breaks a bit more advantageously. It still has a challenging slate with series against Baylor, Brigham Young, Michigan, Oklahoma and San Diego State, all of which project to make regionals. But all those series come at home, making it more manageable.
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Manageable doesn’t mean easy, however. Lee noted on Sunday that while Vanderbilt was running out pitchers throwing in the mid 90s, most of Cal Poly’s throw in the upper 80s. The Mustangs have some solid talent – righthander Taylor Dollard is a top-five rounds talent and freshman shortstop Brooks Lee, currently sidelined by a knee injury, was the second-highest ranked position player not to sign in the draft last year – but not the sheer volume of it that some of their opponents do.
“If we’re who we are and we’re a football team, we’re probably going to get beat up,” Lee said. “If we’re a basketball team same thing. But in baseball, you can’t beat yourself. You just got to get a guy on the mound who can mix a couple pitches and play good defense and enough timely hitting.”
Solid fundamental baseball combined with a belief that they can play with any team in the country is the Mustangs’ formula for success. Lee said his best teams, like the 2014 Mustangs who hosted a regional, had that combination. He’s hopeful the 2020 team can find the right mix as well.
“I think in the past couple years, we play well against so-called lesser team names and then when we play the high-profile teams we don’t play with confidence, we don’t think we can win,” he said. “A few years back our guys didn’t care, they just knew how to win. We’re hoping we have enough guys on the team that can have that mentality and not play scared, play with confidence.”
It helps that Cal Poly has some talented veterans like Beesley and Dollard. Beesley is a career .289/.355/.382 hitter and mans center field. Dollard is the team’s best prospect and on Friday against UConn looked the part of ace after this year moving to the rotation from the bullpen. He struck out 10 batters in seven scoreless innings and held UConn to two hits and two walks.
Dollard pitches with advanced control and has good feel for a low-90s fastball and slider. And the early returns on his conversion to starting were excellent.
“I think putting up seven shutout (innings) is a really big thing to do for a team in terms of success in the long run,” Dollard said. “Again, I think it’s one of those things where no matter where I was pitching or any situation like that, it’s just about being competitive and doing the most that you can to help the team win at the end of the day.”
Brooks Lee is also expected to return from knee surgery to repair a torn LCL he suffered during fall ball in about a month, in time for the start of Big West play. Inserting him into the heart of the lineup and infield would be a big boost.
Put it all together and this could be the year Cal Poly breaks through for a return to the NCAA Tournament. And if the Mustangs are in the Field of 64, no host is going to be happy to see them drawn into their regional.
All of that’s a long way away. But what Cal Poly showed on Opening Weekend against some of the best teams in the country showed how high its ceiling can be.
“As long as you continue to get better as the season progresses,” Lee said, “then you give yourself the chance to become a quality ballclub as the season develops.”