Cal Poly rides top-contender success
Cal Poly has long been known for turning out great engineers and architects. It's starting to earn quite the reputation for baseball, too.
The San Luis Obispo school that produced Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith in the 1970s is enjoying its finest season since joining Division I in 1995.
At 35-5, the Mustangs enter the final month of the regular season No. 1 in one major poll and as a consensus top-three team. Their 11-game win streak is second-longest in the nation behind Columbia's 14-gamer.
After it swept traditional Big West power Cal State Fullerton last weekend, Cal Poly established itself as a strong contender for a top-eight national seed for the NCAA tournament.
"We've embraced that completely," ace pitcher Matt Imhoff said of the possibility.
Coach Larry Lee is trying to tamp down the excitement. After he heard Collegiate Baseball newspaper ranked his team No. 1 this week, he texted his players to warn them not to dwell on the accolade.
"We try to be numb to all the publicity," the 12th-year coach said Thursday. "It's not where you are currently; it's about where you want to finish. To be able to reach those goals, we have to continue to work hard and do the things we're capable of doing and not buy into anything outside of our control."
To be sure, the Mustangs are relishing their time in the spotlight after historically being overshadowed by the Pac-12 schools and Fullerton.
"It's a big achievement to be on top on the West Coast," second baseman Mark Mathias said.
The Mustangs have one of the most balanced clubs in the country, and it would surprise no one if they were playing in June in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series. They're batting .306 and scoring 6.4 runs a game. Their pitching staff leads the nation with 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and their .981 fielding percentage ranks in the top 10.
Imhoff (8-2, 1.87) is a major-league prospect who led the nation with 97 strikeouts at the start of the week, and no one had more wins than Casey Bloomquist (9-0, 1.36 ERA).
Mathias, who moved from the No. 7 hole to the leadoff spot two weeks ago, is 12th nationally in batting and will take a .407 average into this weekend's series at Long Beach State.
"The thing for us is having guys who are always working for the same cause, which is to get to Omaha," Mathias said. "Imhoff is pretty good and gives us a good chance of winning on Fridays, and then you have Bloomquist on Sundays. We play good defense, and we score runs."
The Mustangs, who tied for second in the Big West last season behind Fullerton, lost seniors in 13-game winner Joey Wagman and top hitter Denver Chavez. They also came into the season without a couple of relievers who signed contracts after the draft.
Lee had an inkling he had a championship-caliber team when the Mustangs opened with a three-game sweep of Kansas State, which went to super regionals in 2013, and won two of three on the road against defending national champion UCLA.
"That set the stage," Lee said. "What we did this past weekend against Fullerton kind of took our confidence to another level."
The Mustangs have been fueled by last season's disappointing finish. They beat San Diego in their NCAA regional opener. The next game, Imhoff held UCLA hitless through five innings, and Cal Poly was leading 4-1 with two outs in the sixth when Nick Torres lost sight of a fly that rose above the lights at dusk. The ball dropped for a triple, allowing UCLA to tie the game, and the Bruins won 6-4 and continued on to the national title.
"We had them on the ropes," Imhoff said. "It was hard to lose that game, but it gave us a confidence boost because we saw that we could play with the national champions."
Lee's goal is to build a program with staying power. He expects to lose a number of players in the draft this year, but he does have a core of talented freshmen and sophomores.
"With success, you raise the expectations of the players who enter your program," Lee said. "That's what the better programs in the country have going for them. They expect to either participate in the regionals or expect to be in Omaha. That's where we're trying to take our program."