SAN LUIS OBISPO — To attain its goal of earning an NCAA Division I regional berth this spring, the Cal Poly baseball team needs to find a way to play consistently from start to finish.
In three of the last four seasons, the Mustangs started slowly and finished strong. In 2016, it was just the opposite — a strong start and a slow finish.
“It is always important for us to get off to a good start,” said Larry Lee prior to his 17th season at the helm of the Mustangs, “and we’ve always been that type of program until the last two years. In those two years, it has taken us too long to become a winning team.”
Last year’s squad was 6-10 after the Nebraska series before winning its last seven games and 24 of 41 to finish 30-27. In 2017, the Mustangs overcame a 3-11 start to end the year 28-28, claiming seven of their last nine contests and 25 of 42. The 2015 Mustangs suffered a similar fate, opening 7-14 and finishing 27-27 by winning 17 of their last 26 games.
Though Cal Poly earned back-to-back second-place finishes in the Big West Conference the last two years, the Mustangs’ performances during the non-conference portion of the schedule kept them out of the postseason.
“We dug a big hole the last two years and the slow starts forced us to have to win the Big West to get into postseason play,” Lee said. “This year’s schedule from a non-conference standpoint is going to be very difficult with road series against Oklahoma, Washington
“So we better be ready from pitch one if we want to accomplish what we need to accomplish,” Lee added. “It is an extremely challenging schedule for the group we have. We’ll have to be able to pitch and play defense to keep ourselves in each and every game. We have to be very good in both non-conference and conference games in order to gain a regional berth.”
Cal Poly begins preparations for the 2019 season Friday afternoon. Three weeks later (Feb. 15), the Mustangs open the campaign with the first of three games at Oklahoma.
This year’s 35-man roster includes 18 returning lettermen — five position players who started 25 or more games and four pitchers with 10 or more career starts — along with four players who redshirted a year ago and a dozen newcomers.
Per usual, pitching is the key to any team’s success. Ten of last year’s pitchers return, including two who missed the majority of the year due to injury. Senior right-hander Jarred Zill made his first of five starts in Week 5 but was shut down the final six weeks and junior righty Bobby Ay made just one appearance in 2018.
“I don’t think we have a dominant starting type, but we’re hoping that we have an accumulation of arms that we can put out there in situations where we can be successful, both in series and single-game situations,” said Lee.
“The pitching staff is trending in the right direction,” Lee added.
The offense will be led by junior outfielder Bradlee Beesley, a second-team All-Big West selection a year ago who had a terrific summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League with a .368 average at Yarmouth-Dennis, producing four doubles, a pair of triples, one home run and eight RBI over 22 games.
Other returning starters among the position players are junior shortstop Dylan Doherty, sophomore third baseman Nick DiCarlo, sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson and junior infielder Scott Ogrin.
“Outside of Beesley, there is no proven commodity on the offensive end,” said Lee. “We have a number of players who have playing experience at this level and they will need to up their game to a higher level. Collectively, they need to produce a productive lineup.”
Beesley moves from right field to center field to replace 2018 Big West Field Player of the Year Alex McKenna. Doherty takes over for Kyle Marinconz at shortstop, Junior Myles Emmerson replaces 2018 Big West Defensive Player of the Year Nick Meyer behind the plate and sophomore Cole Cabrera and community college transfer Elijah Greene fill out the outfield.
“Our offense is a work in progress with limited depth,” said Lee. “We won’t have Ogrin, a solid bat in the middle of our lineup who can play multiple positions, for the first half of the season due to offseason foot surgery, so our other regular players need to stay healthy and produce on both sides of the game.
“We have some versatility on defense, but not a lot of depth,” Lee added. “We just need to be able to take care of the ball and be smart in our decision making. Defense and pitching go hand in hand, where each side complements each other.”
A closer look at each position:
The weekend rotation is not set in stone but figures to include Zill, Ay, sophomore right-handers Taylor Dollard and Darren Nelson and freshman southpaw Chase Watkins from Saint Francis High School in Watsonville.
Zill made five starts in 2018 before he was sidelined for the rest of the year, posting a 0-1 record and 3.00 ERA. He also missed the entire 2017 campaign and was granted a medical redshirt after posting a 4-1 mark in 2015 and 4-3 in 2016.
Dollard made 19 appearances on the mound in 2018, all in relief, and was 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA and three saves. He could be used as a reliever again this spring. Nelson was primarily the middle man in the weekend rotation a year ago, going 5-4 with a 4.79 ERA in 16 starts.
The relief corps should be anchored by senior right-hander Michael Clark, who earned 11 saves in 2017 and tried his lot as a starter last year, finishing 4-6 with a 5.90 ERA.
Other top relievers are junior southpaw Thomas Triantos (1-3, 5.13 ERA in 2018), a trio of sophomores — righty Dylan Villalobos (0-0, 16.20 ERA) and lefties Andrew Alvarez (3-1, 6.27 ERA) and Matt Arens (1-1, 3.66 ERA) — and three newcomers in Zane Lindeman (La Salle High School), Bryan Woo (Alameda HS) and Ryan Jameson (San Benito HS), all right-handers.
Emmerson made 16 starts as Meyer’s backup a year ago and hit .322 with eight RBI. He did not commit an error in 48 chances.
Junior John Mackay also returns and the trio will be backed up by freshman AJ Esperanza (El Modena HS), redshirt freshman Mark Armstrong (Paso Robles HS) and junior Connor Loucks (Cañada College).
Samuelson, who earned All-Big West honorable mention praise a year ago, made 41 starts at first base and returns for his second season as a Mustang after hitting .280 with 10 doubles, five home runs
Ogrin, who made 41 starts at second base a year ago, is sidelined for at least the first half of the 2019 campaign, opening the door for freshman Willie Cano (Mesquite HS in Gilbert, AZ), who hit .468 as a senior with 14 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 35 RBI.
Doherty, who started 11 games at second base, 19 at third and four at shortstop a year ago, is the heir apparent at shortstop this spring after hitting .226 with 19 RBI in 43 games during his sophomore campaign.
DiCarlo, who started 24 games at third base as a freshman and hit .226 in 44 games, is No. 1 on the preseason depth chart at the position in 2019.
Connor Gurnik, a redshirt freshman, will back up at second base, shortstop and third base. Gurnik hit .500 as a senior at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. Cano will back up Doherty at shortstop while Kuzma is a reserve at third base.
With Josh George and Colby Barrick using up their eligibility last spring and McKenna going to the Houston Astros in the fourth round of the Major League draft, Cal Poly will have a new outfield in 2019.
Beesley started 56 of Cal Poly’s 57 games in right field last year and moves over to center field to replace McKenna this spring. Beesley hit .277 with 12 doubles, three home runs
Cabrera, who made seven starts a year ago but played in 30 games and hit .279 with three doubles, will take over for George and Barrick in left field.
Taking the spot vacated by Beesley in right field will be Greene, who was No. 3 in the state among all community college hitters with a .428 average at Mt. San Antonio College and also compiled 89 hits, 55 runs scored, 46 RBI, 16 doubles, five triples
Reserve outfielders include sophomore Blake Wagenseller (.211 in 22 games a year ago) and freshman Noah Taylor (Notre Dame HS in Sherman Oaks, Calif.). who hit .337 with five home runs and 26 RBI a year ago.
Wagenseller, who led the Mustangs by going 4-for-8 as a pinch-hitter last spring, is No. 1 on the preseason depth chart as Cal Poly’s designated hitter. Taylor is another top candidate at the position.
Cal Poly's 2019 baseball schedule features weekend series on the road against College World Series participant Washington and regional qualifiers Oklahoma and Baylor in the first five weeks of the campaign.
At home, the Mustangs will host Cal, USC and Saint Mary's, all potential regional qualifiers this spring.
"The 2019 schedule should prove to be one of the toughest, if not the toughest schedule, that we've had," Lee said. "Road series against 2018 postseason qualifiers Washington, Oklahoma and Baylor in the first five weeks of the season will be a sturdy challenge.
"Combined with home series against Cal, USC, and St. Mary's, our non-conference opponents are all possible postseason teams," Lee added.
A total of 17 games against 2018 NCAA Regional participants, a 12-game homestand in late March and early April, 30 home games in all for the second straight year and 10 contests against Pac-12 schools highlight the 2019 Cal Poly baseball schedule.
The Mustangs will play 10 games against Pac-12 schools, hosting Cal on Feb. 22-24, visiting Washington on March 1-3, hosting USC on April 26-28 and playing one game at Stanford on May 14.
Cal Poly opens Big West play with six games at home — three each against CSUN on March 29-31 and Cal State Fullerton on April 5-7. The Mustangs also host Hawai'i on May 3-5 and UC Riverside on May 17-19 for Big West series.
Cal Poly's Big West series on the road will be at UC Davis on April 12-14, Long Beach State on April 18-20, UC Irvine on May 10-12 and UC Santa Barbara to close out the regular season May 23-25.
Cal Poly plays home-and-home midweek games against CSU Bakersfield, Santa Clara, Fresno State
Cal Poly's home games on Saturday have been moved up to 4 p.m. to allow for