A winning streak of seven games and winner of 11 of its last 12 contests turned a midseason slump into another successful season for the Cal Poly baseball team.
Coach Larry Lee’s Mustangs were 20-24 and 10th in the 11-team Big West Conference standings after losing seven of eight games to UC Santa Barbara and CSU Bakersfield in early May. Cal Poly jumped six spots into a fourth-place tie by sweeping Cal State Fullerton, winning three of four games at UC Davis and closing out the 2021 season with a four-game sweep of the Hawai’i series.
"We played extremely well the last three weeks to end the season," said the 19th-year Mustang mentor. "We were in a bad place after the UC Santa Barbara and CSU Bakersfield series and, to turn it around by winning 11 of 12 over the last three weeks, speaks to the resiliency of our players and the energy they put into practices and games.
"They didn't waver and it's a testament to how hard they worked on the field and in practice," Lee added. "As a result, they were rewarded with some high-level baseball toward the end of the season."
Cal Poly finished in the top four in the Big West for the 16th time in the last 18 years (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) and has a combined 331-277 conference record (.545 winning percentage) in 24 years as a member of the Big West.
The Mustangs opened the year with series wins over Pac-12 members UCLA and USC and a three-game sweep of Utah Valley before opening Big West play with three wins in four contests at CSUN.
After that 11-6 start, however, UC San Diego, one of two new members of the conference this year, beat Cal Poly three times in four meetings, starting a Mustang slide that lasted seven weeks. Hitting .301 after the CSUN series, Cal Poly’s team batting average fell to .253 with losses in 18 of 27 contests, falling to 20-24 overall and out of contention for a Big West title.
The Mustangs bounced back by hitting .425 against Cal State Fullerton, .285 at UC Davis and .351 in the final series of the year last weekend versus Hawai’i.
“As soon as we hit conference, we didn't play up to our potential," Lee said. "We limped to the finish line as we didn't have three of our four best relievers and one starting pitcher. We also really had only three healthy position players on the bench and did not really have a lot of options, but the young players who were out there gained valuable experience that we hope will help them next year."
Although four players — senior catcher Myles Emmerson and three redshirt juniors, outfielders Cole Cabrera and Nick DiCarlo and infielder Connor Gurnik — said good-bye to the program on Senior Day and other players could be lost to the Major League Baseball Draft in July, Cal Poly will have a strong nucleus of players returning for the 2022 season.
The group of returnees is headed by shortstop Brooks Lee, designated hitter Matt Lopez, third baseman Tate Samuelson, first baseman Joe Yorke, second baseman Nick Marinconz, utility player Taison Corio and pitchers Drew Thorpe, Travis Weston, Andrew Alvarez, Bryan Woo, Bryce Warrecker, Kyle Scott and Dylan Villalobos, among several others.
Lee, a semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes (Player of the Year) and Brooks Wallace (Shortstop of the Year) awards and a three-time Big West Field Player of the Week this season, finished with a .342 average, broke the school record for doubles in a season with 27 and also led the team in hits (76), triples (3), home runs (10), RBIs (57), total bases (139) and sacrifice flies (8).
On Wednesday, Lee was named Big West Co-Field Player of the Year and Co-Freshman Field Player of the Year, He also landed on the all-conference first team along with Big West Tri-Defensive Player of the Year Emmerson. Mustang honorable mentions include Lopez, Alvarez, Weston and Scott.
Lopez hit .341 with eight doubles and 26 RBIs before missing the final four weeks of the season with a knee injury while Samuelson hit .275 with 12 doubles, six home runs and 39 RBIs. Yorke made just one error in 480 chances and lifted his average 44 points to .227 by going 13-for-30 (.433) in his last 10 games while Corio finished with a .268 mark, adding 53 points to his average by going 18-for-49 (.367) over his final 17 contests.
Marinconz, a .120 hitter after the UC Irvine series in mid-April, kicked it into high gear since then, bumping his average up 163 points to a final .283 by collecting 27 hits in 81 at-bats (.333) over the final 23 games of the season. He hit .304 in Big West games.
On the mound, Friday starter Thorpe was 6-1 with a 3.15 ERA in home games this spring, finishing with a 6-6 mark and 3.79 ERA. He led the squad in strikeouts with 104, which is No. 10 all-time in the Cal Poly record book, and compiled double-digit strikeouts three times this year.
Weston (5-6, 3.28 ERA) earned three complete games, the most by a Mustang pitcher since Joey Wagman also collected three complete games in 2013, while Alvarez (7-3, 4.08 ERA) led the team in wins, struck out 12 against UC Riverside and tossed a complete game of his own at UC Davis. Both Weston and Alvarez were starters in Saturday doubleheaders.
Kyle Scott (2-2, 3.91 ERA) finished first on the team and third in the Big West with his seven saves, six in conference games. Woo (2-2, 6.11 ERA), Warrecker (3-3, 5.45 ERA), Weston and Villalobos (1-0, 3.00 ERA) all were sidelined with injuries during the second half of the season.
In addition to his 22 relief appearances, including five innings of four-hit, one-run baseball for a win at CSUN, Scott also made two starts against CSU Bakersfield and Cal State Fullerton. Woo pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in relief with seven strikeouts for a win at CSUN and 5 2/3 scoreless frames with eight strikeouts in another victory at Long Beach State before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.
Warrecker pitched five innings as a starter versus UC San Diego, allowing one earned run for the win, and earned back-to-back victories against Cal State Fullerton (three innings, one run, three hits) and UC Davis (4 2/3 scoreless innings, two hits) before an injury sidelined him on the final weekend of the season. Villalobos did not pitch during the final six weeks of the year due to an oblique muscle injury. He tossed two scoreless innings in relief for a win versus UCLA and gave up one run in three innings against USC.
Lee welcomed back 20 lettermen off last year’s squad, including seven position starters. The 2021 Mustang roster also was bolstered by the addition of three transfers from Boise State (Weston, Yorke and Reagan Doss), which dropped its baseball program last summer, and one from Washington State, first baseman/designated hitter Matt Lopez.
Doss started 22 games — 19 in left field, two in center field and one as designated hitter — and finished with a steady .258 average with six doubles and 13 RBIs.
Also gaining considerable playing time and expected to return next season are outfielder Sam Biller (27 starts, .253, five doubles) and catcher Collin Villegas (16 starts, .235).
On the mound, Chase Walter (13 appearances, 0-0, 4.24 ERA), Carlo Lopiccolo (14 appearances, 1-0, 4.76 ERA), Kaden Sheedy (12 appearances, four starts, 1-2, 5.40 ERA) and Derek True (15 appearances, 2-1, 6.43 ERA), all right-handers, made significant contributions to the team’s success in 2021 and should return next season.
Walter did not allow a run in his last five appearances on the mound (6 2/3 innings) while Lopiccolo saved his best for last, tossing five scoreless innings in relief for the win against Hawai’i in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader. Sheedy pitched a complete-game three-hitter for the win at UC Davis on May 23 while True threw a scoreless inning for a victory at USC and 2 2/3 scoreless frames for another win versus Hawai’i last weekend.
Lee claimed back-to-back Big West Player of the Week awards after going 7-for-12 against Utah Valley and 7-for-14 versus UCLA, driving in 14 runs in the two series, and earned his third after the Cal State Fullerton series three weeks ago. He produced hitting streaks of 12 games (stopped by UC Irvine), 11 games (snapped by Hawai’i) and nine games (halted by CSUN) this season and compiled a team-leading 25 multiple-hit games and 16 multiple-RBI contests.
For the second time in the last five years, Cal Poly played all of its games in the Golden State. The 2017 squad also played all 56 games in California, going 28-28 while this year’s squad went 31-25. The Mustangs also played 33 of their 56 games inside Baggett Stadium, opening the season with 25 of their first 36 games at home, and won their final eight after a 12-13 start.
Cal Poly won the Big West title in 2014 and has placed second six times (including three straight from 2017-19), third four times and fourth seven times since 2000, posting a combined record of 331-277 in its first 24 years as a member of the Big West (no conference games were played in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season). Cal Poly has had just three losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 13 times this century, including 2021. The Mustangs have won 208 of their last 303 home games for a 68.6 winning percentage.
Lee (577-455-2) surpassed Fresno State’s Bob Bennett for the Big West record for overall wins with the 2-1 series-opening win at USC in late February. During the UC Davis series in 2019, Lee eclipsed 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 reached the 500-victory milestone on April 20, 2018, with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. He earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13, 2017 against Gonzaga and his 1,000th career victory with a 3-0 triumph at UC Santa Barbara on May 23, 2019. He currently has a 1,037-696-5 record over 34-plus seasons as a head coach and coached his 1,000th game as Cal Poly’s head coach on April 1, a 10-1 win over UC San Diego.
Four of Cal Poly’s 15 opponents in 2021 earned NCAA regional playoff berths — Big West champion UC Irvine and runner-up UC Santa Barbara along with UCLA, which finished fourth in the Pac-12, and Mountain West regular season and tournament champion Nevada.
- This report was contributed by Eric Burdick, Assistant Athletics Director for Athletics Communications