SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly has finished second in the Big West Conference three straight years. The Mustangs extended UC Santa Barbara’s run to the title all the way to the final day of the 2019 season before settling for another runner-up finish.

Despite the success of another lofty Big West wind-up — Cal Poly’s 11th straight finish in the upper half of the standings and 15th in Larry Lee’s 17 seasons at the helm — the Mustangs were denied a trip to the NCAA regionals due to their 28-28 overall mark, the result of another slow start.

Cal Poly has started slowly and finished strong four times in the last five years. Last season was no exception as the Mustangs won just two of their first 11 games before turning things around, starting with a four-game series sweep against Columbia.

A 17-7 mark in Big West games ended up one victory shy of a co-championship with the Gauchos and the conference’s automatic qualifying berth in the postseason.

This year, 18th-year head coach Larry Lee welcomes back 10 of the 11 position players who started at least 20 games in 2019 and eight of last year’s 13 pitchers, including junior right-hander Darren Nelson (13 starts) and southpaw Andrew Alvarez (six starts) along with closer Taylor Dollard (5-0, 2.89 ERA, four saves).

Cal Poly pitcher Taylor Dollard starts his windup. (photos contributed by Cal Poly Athletics)

Dollard is expected to make the transition to the weekend rotation as the Friday night starter.

Biggest holes to fill are on the mound as two of Cal Poly’s three first-team All-Big West honorees — starter Bobby Ay (9-1, 3.27 ERA) and closer Michael Clark (6-3, 2.61 ERA, eight saves) — are gone. Dollard was the third Mustang honored.

“Depending on the combination of players we have in any particular game, we should be able to add more life into our lineup than last year,” said Lee. “Early on, we’ll be trying to figure out a balance between offense and defense that is best for our team. From a pitching standpoint, we’re very thin with the arms we have.”

That process begins Friday afternoon inside Baggett Stadium as the 2020 Cal Poly baseball team conducts its first full practice in preparation for the season-opening MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Mustangs will play defending national champion Vanderbilt, runner-up Michigan and NCAA regional qualifier UConn from Feb. 14-16 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Lee is well aware of the fact that his team’s offensive performance last year, while still good enough for the program’s sixth second-place Big West finish in 15 years, resulted in the lowest batting average (.260), on-base percentage (.341), slugging percentage (.332) and fewest runs scored (247), RBIs (217), doubles (76), home runs (13) and steals (22) in Cal Poly’s 25-year Division I history.

“We don’t have a tremendous amount of power,” said Lee, “but we should have fewer swing-and-miss bats in our lineup. We have experience back in some areas and our higher-ceiling players are our first-year players who, once healthy, have to feel at ease competing at this level.”

The Mustangs will open the 2020 campaign without freshman shortstop Brooks Lee, who injured a hamstring during fall practice and likely won’t return to the lineup until the start of Big West play in early April. 

Son of the head coach, Brooks was a .437 hitter in three varsity seasons at San Luis Obispo High School and was a first-team Collegiate Baseball High School All-American and third-team Baseball America All-American. 

“Some of last year’s starters will be competing for playing time with the younger players,” the head coach said.

“We’re still in the process of teaching our infielders to play different positions to allow us some versatility to put the right combination of offensive and defensive players on the field,” Lee added. 

“Early on, we will have the ability to be strong up the middle. Once fully healthy, we have a chance to be strong throughout the field and allow us to put the right players on the field to contribute offensively. That won’t happen in the immediate future.”

The lineup up the middle starts with catcher Myles Emmerson, who started 50 games a year ago and threw out 13 would-be base stealers, picked off four other base runners and allowed just two passed balls all year on his way to Big West honorable mention praise.

“Having a senior catcher like Emmerson will help our pitching staff tremendously, not only on how he receives, blocks and throws, but how he can communicate with each pitcher,” Lee said.

Center field is anchored by senior Bradlee Beesley for the second straight year. A second-team All-Big West selection as a freshman and an honorable mention last spring, Beesley hit .253  with 35 RBIs and a team-leading 15 doubles in 2019 and also led the team in steals with eight in 12 attempts.

Other top returnees include junior first baseman Tate Samuelson (.298, led team in RBIs with 39 and home runs with five) and junior right fielder Elijah Greene (.274). Samuelson was a Big West honorable mention in 2018 and 2019 and also led the Mustangs in home runs (5) and RBIs (38) as a freshman.

Newest addition to the coaching staff is Jake Silverman, who will mentor the pitchers. Silverman was an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton, UCLA and Nevada over the last 11 seasons and worked with the catchers, served as recruiting coordinator and also assisted with hitting and base running at Nevada the last four years (2016-19).

April 26,2019 – during the Cal Poly Baseball vs USC at the Baggette Stadium in San Luis Obispo, CA. Photo By: Nathan Nybakke / www.photography805.com

A closer look at each position:

Pitching

Dollard heads the weekend rotation after two seasons in the bullpen and the list of starters also includes Alvarez and freshmen Drew Thorpe (Desert Hills High School in St. George, Utah) and Derek True (Santa Barbara High School), both right-handers.

“We’re trying to convert Dollard and Alvarez to starters and combine them with a couple of freshmen to make up our starting rotation,” said Lee. “If those four can continue to develop and remain healthy through the course of the year, they can give us some length before turning it over to our bullpen.”

Alvarez was 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA in 22 appearances on the mound, including six starts, all in the last six weeks of the 2019 season.

Thorpe posted 16-2 win-loss record over his final two varsity seasons, earned All-Utah state honors three times and led Desert Hills to the 2019 Utah state 4A title and a 27-3 overall record.

True was 9-0 with a 2.20 ERA as a senior with three complete games and led the Dons to a Channel League title. He earned first-team All-Channel League honors for the second straight year, was league MVP as a senior and posted a 6-0 win-loss record and 1.04 ERA as a junior.

“With those four starters, the onus on our success lies heavily on what our bullpen can accomplish,” said Lee. “This puts the weight heavily on guys like Dylan Villalobos, Bryan Woo, Kyle Scott and Ryan Jameson to throw meaningful innings in the latter third of each game.”

Villalobos was 1-3 with one save and a 5.79 ERA a year ago in 21 mound appearances, all in relief. Woo was 1-2 in 14 mount stints, including four starts (two in four-game series along with a pair of midweek starts) while Jameson had a 4.43 ERA over 13 relief appearances. Scott is a freshman right-hander out of Mater Dei High School who compiled a 1.07 ERA over 19 2/3 innings last spring.

“As with our position players, I like our freshman pitchers who have the right makeup and skill set to be successful at this level,” said Lee. “All the freshmen in our program have to be comfortable in situations thrown at them and not act like freshmen.”

Nelson (2-5, 4.99 ERA in 2019), senior right-hander Craig Colen, who had a strong summer at Eau Claire in the Northwoods League, and junior southpaw Matt Arens (1-0, 6.75 ERA) lend experience in the bullpen.

Catching

Emmerson, who hit .256 with six doubles, a home run and 17 RBIs as a junior, will be backed up by Brett Wells, a transfer from Long Beach City College, and sophomore Mark Armstrong, the 2017 San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year out of Paso Robles High School.

“Myles has grown tremendously as a ballplayer both offensively and defensively,” said Lee, “and he should get a lot of credit for any success our pitching staff achieves.”

A graduate of Cerritos High School, Wells played 27 games as a freshman at Dayton.

First Base

Samuelson, who started 41 games at first base as a freshman and 54 more as a sophomore, will be backed up in 2020 by sophomore Taison Corio and senior Jack Kuzma.

A graduate of De La Salle High School in Concord, Corio stole 24 of 30 bases during his freshman season at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton and hit .358 with 10 doubles, one triple, three home runs and knocked in 38 runs with an on-base percentage of .463 and a slugging percentage of .485, leading the Mustangs to the state finals.

Out of Minnetonka, Minn., Kuzma has played 76 games in three previous seasons at Cal Poly, primarily as a backup infielder.

Second Base

Corio is battling veteran Connor Gurnik for the job at second base. 

“Connor has been through a lot before he even stepped foot on campus with surgeries on his shoulder and knee,” said Lee, “and his battle through them has given him a chance to be on the field. He is a grinder and a tough kid.”

Out of Naperville, Ill., Gurnik hit .263 in 55 games (53 starts) as a redshirt freshman a year ago. He made 34 starts at shortstop and 19 more at second base.

Shortstop

With Brooks Lee idle until the start of Big West play, Nick Marinconz will slide over from third base to fill in when the 2020 season starts.

A younger brother of former Mustang infielder Kyle Marinconz, Nick hit .308 during an injury-shortened senior season at Valley Christian in San Jose. As a junior, Marinconz hit .318 with seven doubles and 17 RBI, helping the Warriors to the second of three straight CIF-Central Coast Section Open Division championships … Marinconz also hit .412 with 12 doubles and 22 RBI as a sophomore and hit .284 at Eau Claire in the Northwoods last summer.

Gurnik will back up Marinconz.

Third Base

With Marinconz filling in for Lee at shortstop, Nick DiCarlo steps up into the No. 1 slot at third base, where he started 54 games as a sophomore and hit .255 with 11 doubles and 22 RBIs.

“Nick has played a lot in his first two years in the program and has steadily progressed as a hitter and defender,” said Lee. 

Samuelson may end up as the starting third baseman if other infielders progress at their positions.

Outfield

On Opening Day, Cal Poly’s starting outfield likely will consists of Cole Cabrera in left field, Bradlee Beesley in center field and either Kyle Ashworth or Elijah Greene in right field.

Cabrera hit .229 a year ago with six doubles and 13 RBIs and handled 93 chances without an error in the outfield, including a pair of home run-robbing catches at UC Santa Barbara on May 23.

Beesley opens his final season as a Mustang two doubles and 11 at-bats shy of Cal Poly’s career top 10 and his 163 career starts is No. 7.

Greene hit .274 in his first season as a Mustang and was the lone player on the team to start all 56 games, including one at first base. He led the Mustangs with 19 multiple-hit games.

“Beesley has taken the next step as a hitter and plays a premium position as our center fielder,” said Lee. “Much of our success as a team hinges on how he performs offensively.

“Cole gives us another quality defender in the outfield as well as a lot of experience offensively. If Cole can produce offensively, he can give us a much-needed spark wherever he hits in our lineup.

“Elijah has become a better defensive outfielder and we’re hoping he can take the next step offensively to provide us with some offense and speed in our lineup.”

Ashworth was a career .416 hitter in three varsity seasons at Foothill High School in Santa Ana with 21 doubles, 10 triples, five home runs and 62 RBIs. He stole 28 of 31 bases with a .528 on-base percentage, 88 runs scored and struck out just 29 times in 354 plate appearances.

Also in the mix are juniors Blake Wagenseller and Scott Ogrin.

Wagenseller hit .145 in limited duty a year ago and is expected to back up Cabrera in left field. Ogrin missed the entire 2019 season due to a foot injury which required multiple surgeries after hitting .266 as a sophomore with four home runs and 26 RBIs in 49 games.

“Blake has shown tremendous improvement as a hitter,” said Lee. “If he can duplicate what he does in a practice setting to a game setting, he can provide power and speed to the middle of our lineup.

“Scott is still trying to get his timing back,” Lee added. “If he can turn the corner and be a productive bat in our lineup, our team can benefit from his presence.”

Designated Hitter

The top three candidates at designated hitter are Wagenseller, Greene and Ogrin. The starter will depend on the rest of the lineup.

Schedule

Games against the two finalists in the 2019 College World Series, five others who qualified for the NCAA regionals and a four-game series at Pac-12 member Oregon highlight the 2020 Cal Poly baseball schedule.

Vanderbilt defeated Michigan to claim the national title last June and Cal Poly faces both teams in the MLB4 Tournament at Scottsdale, Ariz., to open the campaign. The Mustangs also host the national runner-up Wolverines for a three-game series Feb. 28-March 1.

The five other Mustang foes who qualified for the postseason are Baylor, UConn, Stanford, Fresno State and UC Santa Barbara. 

Cal Poly hosts Baylor for three games March 6-8, plays UConn in the MLB4 Tournament, entertains Stanford for a single game March 25, plays a pair of midweek contests against the Bulldogs and hosts the Gauchos for a three-game Big West series April 17-19. In all, Cal Poly will play 35 of its 59 games at home and 15 games against the seven regional qualifiers.

The Mustangs have the first bye in the Big West schedule and will visit Oregon for four games March 27-29.

“This is the most challenging schedule that we’ve ever had,” said Lee. “I would imagine that this might be the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country, including opening up against last year’s National Champions and the runner-up. 

“Part of our non-conference schedule includes 17 games that touch the SEC, Big 12, Big 10, and the Pac-12,” Lee added.

After the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Ariz., the shared Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, Cal Poly will play five consecutive weekends inside Baggett Stadium.

The Mustangs host BYU for four games Feb. 20-22, followed by three games against Michigan, a three-game set versus Baylor, four contests against Oklahoma from March 12-15 and a three-gave series versus San Diego State on March 20-22.

The Mustangs will host UC Irvine on April 3-5 to open Big West play and also will entertain UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State on May 8-10 and UC Davis to close out the regular season May 21-23.

Cal Poly’s Big West series on the road include Hawai’i on April 9-11, CSUN on April 24-26, Cal State Fullerton on May 1-3 and UC Riverside on May 15-17.

In addition to Fresno State, Cal Poly has home-and-home midweek games versus Santa Clara, Pepperdine, San Jose State and CSU Bakersfield. The Roadrunners and UC San Diego join the Big West on July 1, 2020.

Getting through this together, Atascadero