SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly (26-27 overall, 15-6 Big West), tied for second place with UC Irvine in the Big West Conference with sweeps over CSUN, UC Davis and Long Beach State, closes out the 2019 regular season this weekend by visiting first-place and UC Santa Barbara (44-7, 18-3 Big West) for a three-game Big West series. Coach Larry Lee’s Mustangs and the Gauchos of eighth-year head coach Andrew Checketts clash Thursday and Friday at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. inside Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
All three games of the series will be broadcast on ESPN Radio (1280 AM and 101.7 FM) with Chris Sylvester providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and audio and video streams are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Cal Poly has won 24 of its last 42 games after a 2-9 start, with sweeps against Columbia, CSUN, UC Davis and Long Beach State. The Mustangs climbed three games above the .500 mark at 20-17 with its sweep of the Dirtbags, but have lost 10 of their last 16 contests, slipping three games behind UC Santa Barbara in the Big West standings. Cal Poly still controls its own destiny as a sweep of the Gauchos will result in at least a two-way tie for first place (possibly three) and the automatic berth in an NCAA regional. Anything else and the Gauchos will claim the Big West title for the first time since 2015. Cal Poly has swept UCSB each of the last three seasons.
Coming off a 27-28-1 campaign, including a 10-14 mark for seventh place in the Big West, UC Santa Barbara returned 22 letter winners, including eight position starters and 10 pitchers. Top returnees are center fielder Tommy Jew (.312, 41 RBI, 12 steals in 2018), catcher Thomas Rowan (.312, 20 RBI) and right fielder Armani Smith (.224, 29 RBI). The pitching staff is led by southpaws Jack Dashwood (2-6, 5.27 ERA in 2018) and Ben Brecht (3-2, 5.09 ERA). Right-hander Chris Lincoln (2-3, 3.49 ERA), used mostly as a starter last year, also returns as the Gauchos’ closer.
Coached by Checketts (eighth season, 275-174-3, Oregon State ‘98), UC Santa Barbara leads the Big West with a .304 team batting average through 51 games. The Gauchos have stolen 87 of 107 bases (most in the conference), sport a 3.28 staff ERA (also best in the Big West) and have compiled a .978 fielding percentage with 41 errors in 51 games.
The Gauchos split their first four games — 1-1 marks against Loyola Marymount and UNLV — but since then have produced winning streaks of 12, 13 and 13 games for their 44-7 record and are two wins shy of the school record of 46 wins in a season, set in 1986. UCSB has swept Hartford, Tulane, Missouri State, Stephen F. Austin and, in Big West play, UC Irvine, UC Davis, CSUN, Long Beach State and Hawai’i, losing twice at UC Riverside in late April and once at Cal State Fullerton. Against Hawai’i last weekend in Honolulu, the Gauchos won 8-2 and 11-1, but were down to their final strike Sunday, trailing 3-1, when Cole Mueller’s two-run single tied the game in the ninth and UCSB tallied three in the 11th for a 6-3 victory.
Top Gaucho hitters to date are catcher Eric Yang (.389, 16 doubles, seven home runs, 45 RBI), shortstop McClain O’Connor (.344, 11 doubles, 15 RBI), Rowan (.337, 14 doubles, 12 home runs, 45 RBI) and Smith (.335, 16 doubles, eight triples, 11 home runs, 44 RBI). The pitching staff is led by Dashwood (9-1, 2.16 ERA), Brecht (10-1, 3.74 ERA) and Rodney Boone (7-0, 3.10 ERA), all southpaws. Lincoln has a 4-1 mark and 3.67 ERA with 13 saves.
The Gauchos are No. 1 in the nation in sacrifice flies (42) and win-loss percentage (.863), No. 3 in triples (28), No. 4 in WHIP (1.17), No. 6 in slugging percentage (.511), No. 7 in ERA (3.28), No. 8 in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.03), No. 9 in walks allowed per nine innings (3.03) and 18th with their .304 batting average. Individually, Ben Brecht’s 10 wins are No. 3, Tevin Mitchell’s eight sacrifice flies also are No. 3, Armani Smith is No. 4 with eight triples and Chris Lincoln is No. 7 with 13 saves. Eric Yang’s .389 batting average is No. 21 while his .500 on-base percentage is No. 18.
UCSB claimed Big West titles in 1972 and 1986 and has qualified for the NCAA Division I regionals 10 times, including 2013, 2015 and 2016, compiling a 13-24 win-loss record in Division I postseason competition, including 6-2 in 2016 en route to regional and super regional triumphs and a berth in the College World Series.
Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara have met 229 times on the baseball field since the series began when both teams were California Collegiate Athletic Association members back in 1942. The Gauchos hold a 119-110 advantage, winning two of three at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in 2015. Cal Poly swept the then-No. 9-ranked Gauchos in Baggett Stadium in 2016 and also swept UCSB two years ago in Santa Barbara by scores of 11-2, 7-4 and 9-2 and last season in Baggett Stadium (5-3, 4-2 and 9-3).
Cal Poly is 56-44 against UCSB since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season. Larry Lee is 40-23 against UC Santa Barbara while Andrew Checketts is 7-18 against Cal Poly.
Checketts spent three seasons as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under George Horton at Oregon before coming to UC Santa Barbara. He was on the UC Riverside staff for seven years and began his coaching career at Riverside Community College, where he served as pitching coach and helped the team to their second consecutive California State championship in 2001. Checketts played one season at Florida and three at Oregon State.
Lee welcomed back 18 letter winners this spring, including five position players who made 25 or more starts in 2018, and eight pitchers, three of whom have made 10 or more career starts.
The list of veterans is led by junior center fielder Bradlee Beesley, who hit .277 with 12 doubles and 33 RBI a year ago, was a second-team All-Big West selection in 2017 after hitting .305 and also had a solid Cape Cod League season with Yarmouth-Dennis last summer, hitting .368. After hitting .517 in the first seven games this season, Beesley cooled off, his average falling to .262. Since then, he has gone 27-for-77 at the plate (.351) with eight doubles and a quartet of three-hit games to boost his average back up to .295.
In addition to Beesley, also returning are sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson (.280, five home runs, 38 RBI in 2018), senior shortstop Dylan Doherty and sophomore third baseman Nick DiCarlo, both .226 hitters a year ago. Junior utility player Scott Ogrin, who hit .266 with 26 RBI last spring, will miss the 2019 season with a foot injury.
The pitching corps is led by sophomore right-hander Darren Nelson (5-4, 4.79 ERA in 2018), senior righty Jarred Zill (0-1, 3.00 ERA in five starts a year ago), who missed most of both the 2017 and 2018 seasons due to injury, and junior right-hander Bobby Ay (1-6, 5.40 ERA in 2017, made just one appearance in 2018 before he was sidelined with an injury).
Leading the team 14 weeks into the 2019 season is freshman designated hitter Conagher Sands with a .328 average. His 23-game hitting streak, third-longest in Cal Poly’s 25-year Division I history and the longest active streak in the nation at the time, was snapped Friday by UC Riverside. Sands has collected 22 of his 23 RBI over the last six weeks. He is followed by Samuelson with a .295 average, four home runs and 37 RBI, middle infielder Connor Gurnik at .274 with seven doubles, a triple, one home run and 16 RBI, and sophomore right fielder Elijah Greene at .270 with five doubles, a triple and 17 RBI. Catcher Myles Emmerson, hitting .073 four weeks into the season, is Cal Poly’s top hitter in Big West play at .352 with 10 RBI. Overall, he has gone .319 at the plate since and including the Baylor series in mid-March.
Cal Poly’s weekend rotation in the first eight weeks of the 2019 season consisted of senior righty Jarred Zill (2-6, 3.52 ERA), junior right-hander Bobby Ay (8-1, 3.56 ERA) and sophomore right-hander Darren Nelson (2-5, 4.99 ERA). Zill missed his last six starts due to injury (he has made four relief appearances) with freshman southpaw Chase Watkins (0-2, 5.19 ERA) stepping in. Freshman Bryan Woo (1-2, 9.13 ERA), also a right-hander, pitched five innings for the win against Columbia on March 9, was Cal Poly’s fourth starter in a pair of four-game series and also has started two midweek games. Sophomore southpaw Andrew Alvarez (1-3, 5.26 ERA) replaced Nelson in the weekend rotation in late April.
Ay will move from his customary Saturday role to the series opener Thursday. Lee will announce his other two starters following each game of the series. UC Santa Barbara has not released its rotation for the series.
A year ago, the Mustangs were No. 1 in the Big West in team hitting, on-base percentage, hits, doubles, triples, walks and turning double plays. Twenty of Cal Poly’s 24 Big West games were decided by four or fewer runs. The Mustangs defeated UC Davis 16-0 and the three remaining games were six-run decisions, Cal Poly winning twice, and the Mustangs won six of 13 weekend series, sweeping Dartmouth, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
Including this season, the Mustangs have been tormented by slow starts — 3-11 before finishing 28-28 (won seven of last nine games) in 2017, 6-10 before wrapping up the 2018 campaign 30-27 (winning their final seven contests), and 2-9 prior to the Columbia series sweep. Cal Poly also opened the 2015 season 7-14 but rallied to finish 27-27 (winning 17 of its last 26 games).
Cal Poly played 17 games against 2018 NCAA Regional participants this spring, wrapped up a 12-game home stand six weeks ago with a 6-6 mark, played 30 home games in all (16-14) and had 10 contests scheduled against Pac-12 schools — three-game series against Cal and USC at home and versus College World Series participant Washington and a single game against Stanford on the road. The Mustangs’ first three series on the road this season — at Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor — were against teams that earned regional berths a year ago along with Cal State Fullerton, Saint Mary’s and Stanford.
Cal Poly has had just three losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 12 times this century. The Mustangs have won 184 of their last 259 home games for a 71.0 winning percentage.
Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, captured its first Big West championship in 2014 and has five second-place finishes, four thirds and six fourths since becoming a member of the conference in 1997. This year, Cal Poly will finish in the top five of the Big West standings for the 15th time in Lee's 17 seasons with the Mustangs. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
While all 56 Mustang games in 2017 were played in the Golden State, Cal Poly played four games in a tournament at Surprise, Ariz., visited Nebraska for a four-game series and traveled to Hawai’i for a three-game Big West series in 2018. In addition to Oklahoma and Washington, the Mustangs made another out-of-state trip to Baylor this spring.
Over the last seven seasons from 2012-18, Cal Poly has won 240 games, the third-highest total among the 24 California schools with Division I programs. Averaging 35 wins per season during those seven campaigns, the victory total is eighth among 46 schools in the NCAA’s West Region. In addition, from 2012-14, Cal Poly averaged 41 wins a year with 123 victories, more than any other Division I team in California, and the Mustangs have averaged 32.5 victories per season under Lee’s guidance.
Lee (539-418-2) reached the 500-victory milestone on April 20, 2018, with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. His 539 wins to date are No. 2 in the conference behind Fresno State’s Bob Bennett (547) and, during the UC Davis series, Lee surpassed Cal Poly alum and former Long Beach State head coach Dave Snow with his 219th conference win. Snow guided the Dirtbags to 218 Big West wins from 1989-2001.
Lee surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. Lee earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13, 2017 against Gonzaga. With 999 career wins at Cuesta and Cal Poly, Lee is just one victory shy of the 1,000 mark.