SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (18-21, 8-4 Big West), which has opened Big West play with four consecutive two-to-one series wins and has won 10 of its last 15 games after an 8-16 start to the 2017 season, continues a stretch of five non-conference contests in eight days, visiting UCLA (19-18, 10-8 Pac-12) for a three-game series Friday through Sunday inside Jackie Robinson Stadium (cap.: 1,879).
First pitches are set for 6 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. All three games will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Chris Sylvester providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats and an audio stream are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
Despite having 25 freshmen and sophomores on the roster a year ago, including as many as six true freshmen and a community college transfer in the starting lineup, Cal Poly posted a 32-25 mark in 2016, won nine of 15 weekend series, including victories over No. 14 UCLA and No. 19 Michigan and a sweep against College World Series participant UC Santa Barbara.
Eight position players who started at least 27 games a year ago are on the 2017 roster and the pitching rotation features all four returning starters off the 2016 squad, including weekend starters Erich Uelmen (5-3, 3.68 ERA), Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64 ERA) and Jarred Zill (4-3, 2.79 ERA). Sophomore right-hander Cam Schneider also returned after starting seven games a year ago.
After winning just twice during a season-opening 11-game road trip, Cal Poly posted a 6-6 mark in a 12-game home stand in March. Since the start of Big West play on the final day of March, the Mustangs have hit .322, have outscored the opposition 100-62, has compiled a 3.41 ERA and 10-5 record and own a .976 fielding percentage with 14 errors in the 15 games.
Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the .253 average, 42 errors and 121 runs surrendered en route to an 8-16 record in the first 24 games of the season.
Last week, the Mustangs defeated CSU Bakersfield 10-2 as freshman Bradley Beesley drove in four runs with two hits, sophomore center fielder Alex McKenna hit his third home run of the year and Cal Poly scored 10 times in the first three innings. The Mustangs then returned home and earned a two-games-to-one Big West series win against No. 8 Cal State Fullerton, rebounding from Friday's 7-4 setback with 13-6 and 8-4 triumphs before 6,782 fans, including 2,850 on Saturday night. Cal Poly hit .364 in the series, Beesley and McKenna collecting seven hits each and Colby Barrick adding six. The Mustangs are 12-9 against the Titans over the last seven seasons. Cal Poly was held to four hits in a 6-3 loss to Fresno State on Tuesday night, closing out a four-game home stand.
UCLA opened last week with a 2-1 win over Big West leader Long Beach State, then lost two of three Pac-12 games to No. 1-ranked Oregon State. The Bruins defeated Long Beach State again, 5-1, on Tuesday night, and have won five series this season, including sweeps against California and San Jose State. UCLA also has won series against Gonzaga, Arizona State and Stanford.
UCLA has 20 lettermen returning off last year's 25-31 squad that finished 10th in the Pac-12 standings at 12-18. Among the returnees are three position starters and nine pitchers.
Top returning position player include first baseman Sean Bouchard (.295, 36 RBI in 2016), catcher Daniel Rosica (.264, 14 RBI) and left fielder Brett Stephens (.223, 19 RBI). The pitching staff is paced by junior right-hander Griffin Canning (5-8, 3.70 ERA in 2016) and sophomore righty Kyle Molnar (5-5, 3.32 ERA). Molnar is redshirting this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.
Bouchard is hitting .326 so far this season with seven home runs and 28 RBI while Stephens owns a .236 mark with 14 RBI. Rosica has a .203 average. Other top Bruin hitters are designated hitter Kyle Cuellar (.348, eight doubles, 19 RBI), right fielder Michael Toglia (.267, 14 RBI) and shortstop Ryan Kreisler (.262, 18 RBI).
Coached by John Savage (13th season at UCLA (438-319), 16th season overall (526-403-2), Nevada '91), UCLA is hitting .258 as a team with 27 home runs, has stolen 26 of 40 bases, has compiled a 3.54 staff ERA and owns a .979 fielding percentage with 30 errors in 37 games.
UCLA claimed the 2013 College World Series title and its Pac-12 championship in 2015 was its 11th. The Bruins have made 20 regional appearances and have qualified for both the Super Regionals and College World Series five times.
Under Savage's guidance, UCLA has advanced to the postseason in eight of the last 11 seasons and has produced 90 draft selections. In addition, Savage has coached 14 players at UCLA that have competed in the major leagues. Prior to taking over UCLA's program, Savage was head coach at UC Irvine for three seasons (2002-2004) and was an assistant coach at USC (1997-2000) and Nevada (1992-1996). He pitched at Santa Clara for three seasons and was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 16th round of the 1986 MLB Draft. Savage played two seasons in the Reds' minor league system.
The Bruins own a 23-10 advantage in their series against Cal Poly, beating the Mustangs once in the 2013 regional at Jackie Robinson Stadium en route to the national championship and winning two of three games against Cal Poly a year ago in Baggett Stadium. In its Big West championship season in 2014, Cal Poly won two of three games against UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium, including a 2-0 shutout pitched by Slater Lee, then a freshman, as he tossed a two-hitter with seven strikeouts.
Larry Lee is 6-9 against UCLA while John Savage is 16-8 against Cal Poly, including a 9-6 mark at UCLA and 7-2 record at UC Irvine.
Cal Poly's 2017 roster is led by seven returning position starters and eight pitchers who tossed 20 or more innings in 2016.
Outfielder Josh George (.306, seven doubles, 16 RBI in 2016) and catcher Nick Meyer (.301, seven doubles, 21 RBI) both hit above the .300 mark a year ago. Meyer was a second-team All-Big West selection and also was named Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year after picking off a Big West-leading 10 runners and threw out 22 would-be base stealers, second in the conference.
Middle infielder Kyle Marinconz (.284, 15 doubles, 25 RBI), an All-Big West honorable mention, joined Meyer on Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team. Third baseman Michael Sanderson (.296, 12 doubles, 33 RBI), a second-team All-Big West selection in 2016, outfielder Kevin Morgan (.269, 15 RBI), outfielder Alex McKenna (.261, six home runs, 27 RBI) and shortstop Brett Binning (.225) also return.
A pair of true freshmen -- infielder Bradlee Beesley (.407, 19 RBI at San Leandro High School) and outfielder/designated hitter Scott Ogrin (.412, 18 RBI at Valencia High School) -- were in the starting lineup on Opening Day along with community college transfer Elijah Skipps (Cypress College) at first base.
Cal Poly's top hitter through 39 games is McKenna with a .368 mark, including nine doubles, four home runs and 26 RBI. He is 30-for-66 (.455) over his last 14 games with 10 multiple-hit contests. Sanderson is hitting .344 with eight doubles, a triple and 14 RBI, going 38-for-103 (.369) over his last 25 games.
Beesley is hitting .324 with 11 doubles, going 45-for-123 (.366) since and including the middle game of the San Diego State series when he produced his first four-hit game. He was hitting .160 prior to that contest March 4. Meyer owns a .263 average with 25 RBI while George, who broke out of a 0-for-22 slump with two hits in the finale of the Nebraska series and three more at Fresno State, is hitting at a .261 clip with nine doubles and 22 RBI. Shortstop Kyle Marinconz has a .238 average with 13 extra-base hits and 22 RBI.
Uelmen, who has struck out 53 batters over 55 1/3 innings, leads the Mustang pitching corps. His record is just 2-6 because in an early-season stretch of three consecutive starts over 20 2/3 innings, he received zero runs from his teammates. Six weeks ago against Wichita State, he pitched seven strong innings with 10 strikeouts but was not involved in the 13-inning decision, a 5-4 Mustang win. He gave up two earned runs and four hits over six innings in a 3-2 loss to Nebraska five weeks ago and one earned run and seven hits over six frames in a non-decision 10-inning 3-2 win at UC Irvine four weeks ago. Uelmen's first win was in the season opener at Cal on Feb. 18 and he finally notched win No. 2 two weeks ago at UC Davis, giving up one run and five hits over six innings.
Howard (3-1, 2.31 ERA, second-best in the Big West) picked up his first win with seven scoreless innings against Wichita State six weeks ago, notching a career-high 11 strikeouts, and earned his second win in the Hawai'i series and his third last week against Cal State Fullerton. Sophomore righty Bobby Ay (1-3, 4.35 ERA) earned his first win April 9 against Hawai'i, pitching into the eighth inning for the first time and allowing a run and five hits with six strikeouts.
A year ago Cal Poly earned its 14th winning season since 2000 and reached the 30-win mark for the 11th time this century. The Mustangs were 23-8 at home last season and have won 140 of their last 186 home games for a winning percentage of 75.3 percent. Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, has finished fourth or higher in the Big West 12 times in its last 14 seasons, including back-to-back fourth-place finishes after capturing its first Big West championship in 2014.
Lee (473-357-2) earned his 400th win March 7, 2015, at Pacific and surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. Lee's previous 14 clubs at Cal Poly have averaged 32.5 wins per season. Lee earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and, in his 15th season at Cal Poly, notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13 against Gonzaga.
Cal Poly will play a total of seven games against Pac-12 teams this season, winning two of three in the season-opening series at Cal and falling at Stanford on Feb. 23. The schedule also features 14 games against 2016 NCAA regional qualifiers, a 12-game home stand in March and 28 contests in all inside Baggett Stadium. All 56 Mustang games this spring will be played in the Golden State.
Next week, Cal Poly completes the stretch of five consecutive non-conference games Tuesday at home against Pepperdine before resuming Big West play next Friday through Sunday at Long Beach State.
Photo above of second baseman Scott Ogrin courtesy of Ray Ambler | RA Photos