SAN LUIS OBISPO — For years, Cal Poly has been known to develop some of the best hitters on the West Coast. That development has slowed over the past few years.

“We’re should be much better than we have been the last four or five years offensively,” said Larry Lee as he enters his 19th season at the helm of the Mustangs. “A number of players have developed their hitting skills from last year and, with the addition of several newcomers, we hope to put together a more stressful lineup.”

Catcher Myles Emmerson led the squad a year ago with his .317 average, but no other Mustang starter finished above .280. Emmerson is the only one of the five seniors on last year’s squad who is returning this season under the NCAA rule allowing every 2020 spring sport athlete another year of eligibility due to COVID-19.

Cal Poly also lost starting right-handed pitcher Taylor Dollard to the Major League Draft (Seattle Mariners, fifth round) and outfielders Bradlee Beesley (Cubs) and Elijah Greene (Angels), both of whom signed free agent contracts last summer. Dollard one of just 12 players from California colleges selected in the 2020 draft.

However, the 2021 Mustang roster has been bolstered by the addition of three transfers from Boise State, which dropped its baseball program last summer, and one from Washington State, first baseman/designated hitter Matt Lopez.

Last year’s freshman class, which includes the likes of shortstop Brooks Lee, infielder Nick Marinconz and pitchers Drew Thorpe, Derek True and Kyle Scott, is considered one of Lee’s strongest and the lineup also will feature the likes of veterans Cole Cabrera in center field, Taison Corio at second base and Tate Samuelson, who will move from first base across the diamond to third base this year.

In addition to Thorpe, Scott and True, the pitching staff will be led by returnees Andrew Alvarez and Bryan Woo in the starting rotation and Dylan Villalobos out of the bullpen.

All three Boise State transfers figure to play prominent roles with the Mustangs this spring. Southpaw Travis Weston could be Cal Poly’s Saturday starter, Joe Yorke is penciled on the depth chart No. 1 at first base and Reagan Doss is listed No. 1 in right field.

A closer look at the three major facets of the game:

Offense

Lee has a simple plan to cure the recent offensive woes of his club.

“Some of the keys with our offensive lineup are the evolution of Cabrera as a leadoff hitter, creating a stack of quality hitters in the middle of the lineup and the ability to be productive at the end of the lineup,” Lee said.

OK, maybe not simple, but it’s a plan that Lee hopes to fulfill in 2021.

With Cabrera atop the batting order, Corio likely will hit second and Brooks Lee in the No. 3 slot. Lee was used as a pinch-hitter in two games last year during his recovery from surgery for a leg injury sustained during preseason in late 2019.

Samuelson, Cal Poly’s home run leader with five in each of his first two seasons, will occupy the cleanup spot, followed by Doss and Emmerson. Perhaps the biggest key, the bottom third of the order is expected to be filled with Yorke, Lopez at DH and either freshman Sam Biller or junior Nick DiCarlo.

“Looking at our lineup, with Corio, Lee and Samuelson, there is the possibility of being strong in the middle,” said Lee. “Doss and Yorke are new to the program but come from a quality Division I program, and whoever are our designated hitter and left fielder need to bring some production with them.”

The depth chart also features Marinconz and redshirt sophomore Connor Gurnik in the middle infield spots, junior Blake Wagenseller in the outfield and sophomore Collin Villegas, a transfer from Irvine Valley College, backing up Emmerson behind the plate.

Cal Poly’s team batting average dropped to .271 by 2016, to .260 by 2019 and all the way down to a school Division I record .231 mark in 16 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.

Cal Poly played Vanderbilt at the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Flats in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Owen Main 2/16/20

Pitching

Dollard, last year’s Friday night starter for four weeks before the season was shut down, was 9-0 in his Mustang career with a 2.43 ERA and seven saves, striking out 121 batters over 111 1/3 innings.

Moving into the top of the starting rotation will be Thorpe, the Desert Hills (Utah) High School product who was 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA as a true freshman a year ago and struck out a school freshman record 13 batters in a win over BYU.

Weston, 1-2 with a 5.06 ERA and 20 strikeouts over 16 innings at Boise State last spring, likely will be the Saturday starter. Weston played one season at Ventura College in 2019 and posted an 8-3 record and 2.63 ERA. He is a graduate of Moorpark High School, where he was 17-5 with a 1.27 in his last two varsity seasons.

Alvarez, who struck out 23 batters over 22 1/3 innings in four starts a year ago, has been tabbed as the Sunday starter and Woo, who made seven relief appearances in 2020 with 20 strikeouts over 17 2/3 innings, will start the fourth game of a series.

“Our starting rotation is the strength of our team at this time,” Lee said a week prior to the start of preseason practice. “All have experience at the Division I level. It’s a solid rotation, whether we play three- or four-game weekend series.

“Thorpe will move from Sunday to Friday,” Lee added. “He has great makeup and a feel for the game. Drew also has a swing-and-miss change-up and is very athletic.

“Weston was the Friday starter at Boise and brings with him an attitude, confidence and a swing-and-miss change-up as well,” Lee added. “Alvarez has improved greatly in all facets of his pitching craft. His mechanics are sound and he is a very solid No. 3 starter.

“Woo has made the biggest jump from anyone on our staff,” Lee said. “He has high-end velocity, pitches with confidence, able to attack the strike zone and pitches with a tremendous amount of versatility and bounce back. He also will strengthen our bullpen in our early non-conference series.”

The 2021 schedule will call for four-game weekend Big West series and the elimination of midweek games.

“Going to a four-game series, Woo should be a great matchup to finish off a series,” Lee said. “He gives us some flexibility as he could close a game Friday and come back to start Sunday.”

Scott, 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven relief appearances as a true freshman in 2020, heads the list of relievers, followed by Kaden Sheedy, a redshirt due to injury a year ago, and Chase Walter, a freshman from Laguna Niguel, Calif. who attended the Baseball Performance Academy, a year-round travel team, the last two years.

Others expected to compile extensive innings out of the bullpen include Villalobos, freshman Bryce Warrecker from Santa Barbara High School and College of San Mateo transfers Carlo Lopiccolo and Zach Button.

“We have the numbers and some quality within those numbers,” Lee said of his relievers. “Some members of our staff continue to evolve and have the ability to pitch in high-leverage situations.” 

Defense

With Samuelson moving from first to third, Brooks Lee finally getting the chance to flash some leather at shortstop, Yorke taking over at first and Corio, Gurnik and Marinconz battling for the nod at second, the Mustang infield looks solid for the 2021 season.

Add Emmerson behind the plate and Cabrera making the switch from left to center in replacing Beesley, Lee likes what he sees in terms of his team’s defensive abilities.

“We’re much better than we have been in many years,” Lee said. “We have a chance to be very strong up the middle with three high-level defenders,” noting Emmerson behind the plate, Brooks Lee at shortstop and Cabrera in center field.

“Samuelson has made the transition from first to third smoothly,” Lee added. “He has developed into a solid defender at third base, allowing Yorke to step in with his defensive abilities at first. 

“Corio has improved dramatically from last year and will continue to develop with each game at second base. Gurnik and Marinconz have the ability to defend and become late-inning replacements, while also competing for a starting nod.

“Doss has a strong arm in right field while Biller and DiCarlo are a work in progress in left field,” Lee said. “Overall, we should be able to take care of the ball at a higher level than in past years.”

Not since 2014 has Cal Poly averaged less that one error per game. From 2015 through 2020, the Mustangs committed an average of 1.34 errors a contest, compared to just 0.86 miscues a game committed by the conference championship and regional-hosting team of 2014.

Synopsis

“I am excited about this year,” Lee said. “This year’s team has the best culture and work ethic that we’ve had in a number of years. We have some talent in a variety of areas and overall the players have worked hard to be competitive in all facets of the game.

“We have a few players who can play anywhere in the country,” Lee added, “and that creates a competitive and successful mindset that carries over to the other players within the program. 

“When you have better players on the field, it affects all the other players. It’s hard to quantitate what that brings to the team, but it’s what we need to get back to a winning culture.”

Only eight Mustangs were able to play summer ball, which was greatly curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the Northwoods League, Brooks Lee finished seventh in the Northwoods League with his .345 batting average and was tied for fourth with 35 RBIs and tied for second in hits with 51 while playing for the Willmar Stingers. 

Scott pitched well for the Stingers, Marinconz played at St. Cloud, Corio at Rochester, Samuelson with the Long Boarders of the San Diego Collegiate League and Warrecker and True helped the Santa Barbara Foresters capture their eighth National Baseball Congress Semi-Pro World Series championship at Wichita, Kansas.

“Our players who were able to play summer ball benefitted greatly,” said Lee. “It gave them much-needed playing experience, whether it was getting at-bats or innings pitched.”

The Mustangs also have benefitted from dry weather and clearance from public health officials to practice the maximum number of days in the fall.

“We were one of the more fortunate colleges in California to have a very productive fall, probably the best fall in recent memory,” Lee said. “We had plenty of healthy players and the position players got more reps than in any fall since I’ve been here.”

Getting through this together, Atascadero