LOUIS OBISPO – Cal Poly has been known for years as one of the best hitting teams on the West Coast This trend has slowed in recent years
“We should be much more attacking than we have been in the last four or five years,” said Larry Lee, who is in his 19th season at the helm of the Mustangs. “A number of players have improved over the past year, and with a few newcomers, we hope to build an even stronger team.
Receiver Miles Emmerson led the team with a 0.317 average a year ago, but no other Mustang starter has exceeded 0.280. Emmerson is the only one of last year’s five seniors returning this season under an NCAA rule that allows any athlete to play another year in spring 2020 through VIDOC-19.
Cal Poly also lost right-handed pitcher Taylor Dollard in the Major League draft (Seattle Mariners, fifth round) and outfielders Bradley Beasley (Cubs) and Elijah Green (Angels), both of whom signed free agent contracts last summer. Dollard is one of 12 California college players selected in the 2020 draft.
However, the Mustangs’ 2021 team has been bolstered by three transfers from Boise State, which withdrew from the baseball program last summer, and one from Washington State, first baseman/forward Matt Lopez.
Last year’s rookie class, with veterans like shortstop Brooks Lee, outfielder Nick Marinconz and pitchers Drew Thorpe, Derek True and Kyle Scott, is considered one of Lee’s strongest, and the team also includes veterans like Cole Cabrera in center field, Taison Corio at second base and Tate Samuelson, who will move from first base to third base on the diamond this year.
In addition to Thorpe, Scott and True, the pitching staff is led by returning players Andrew Alvarez and Brian Wu in the starting rotation and Dylan Villalobos in the paddock.
Boise State’s three transfers will play an important role for the Mustangs this spring. Left-hander Travis Weston could be Cal Poly’s Saturday starter, Joe York is No. 1 on the first base depth chart and Reagan Doss is No. 1 in right field.
Take a closer look at the three most important aspects of the game:
Lee has a simple plan to deal with his club’s recent offensive problems.
“Some of the keys to our offensive line are developing Cabrera as a lead hitter, creating a quality hitting stack in the middle of the line and the ability to be productive at the back end of the line,” Lee said.
Okay, it may not be easy, but it’s a plan Lee hopes to see realized by 2021.
With Cabrera leading the way, Corio will likely be second and Brooks Lee third. Last year, Lee was used as a pinch hitter in two games while recovering from surgery following a foot injury he suffered at the end of the 2019 preseason.
Samuelson, Cal Poly’s home run leader with five runs in each of his first two seasons, will take the helm as cleanup hitter, followed by Doss and Emmerson. The bottom third of the batting order is expected to be filled out by York, Lopez at DH and newcomer Sam Biller or junior Nick DiCarlo.
“If you look at our team, with Corio, Lee and Samuelson, we have the ability to be strong at center,” Lee said. “Doss and York are new to the program but come from a quality Division I program, and our designated hitter and left-hander should provide some production.”
The Marincones and red-coat senior Connor Gurnick in center infield, junior Blake Wagenseller in the outfield and junior Collin Villegas, a transfer from Irvine Valley College, who will support Emmerson behind home plate, are also on the depth chart.
Cal Poly’s batting average dropped to 0.271 through 2016, to 0.260 through 2019 and to Division I high school where the shortstop posted a .231 in 16 games through 2020.
Cal Poly played against Vanderbilt in the MLB4 tournament at the Salt River Flats in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo by Owen Maine on 16/16/20
Dollard, a Friday night starter with four weeks to go before the end of last year’s season, went 9-0 with an ERA of 2.43 and seven saves in his Mustang career, striking out 121 batters in 111 1/3 sets.
At the head of the starting rotation is Thorpe, a product of Desert Hills high school in Desert Hills, Utah, who scored 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA in the first year a year ago and broke the school record of 13 wins with a win against BYU.
Weston, 1-2 with an ERA of 5.06 and 20 outs in 16 sets at Boise State last spring, will likely be the starter on Saturday. Weston played one season at Ventura College in 2019, posting a record of 8-3 and an ERA of 2.63. He graduated from Moorpark high school where he went 17-5 with an ERA of 1.27 in his last two seasons.
Alvarez, who struck out 23 times in 22 1/3 sets in four starts a year ago, was selected as Sunday’s starter. Wu, who made seven relief appearances in 2020 with 20 opg opgays in 17 2/3 sets, will start the fourth match of the series.
“Our starting rotation is the strength of our team right now,” Lee said in the week before preseason practice began. “Everyone has first-team experience. It’s a solid rotation whether we play a three-game or four-game series this weekend.
“Thorpe will be moved from Sunday to Friday,” Mr. Lee added. “He has an excellent makeup and great feel for the game.” Drew also has a swing and a miss change and is very athletic.
“Weston was the starter on Friday in Boise and brought the attitude, confidence and swing and team changeup,” Lee added. “Alvarez has greatly improved all aspects of his pitching ability. His technique is good and he’s a very solid number three starter.
“Wu took the biggest jump of all,” Lee said. “He has great speed, safe jumps and he is able to attack the strike zone and jump with great versatility and bounce. He will also strengthen our cell in our first set of non-conference games.”
The 2021 schedule provides for four Big West Series games on weekends and the cancellation of weekday games.
“At the beginning of the four-game series, Wu should be a great match to close out the series,” Lee said. “It gives us some flexibility because he can close out a game on Friday and come back on Sunday.
Scott, 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven rookie appearances in 2020, leads the roster of infielders, followed by Caden Sheedy, who retired a year ago due to injury, and Chase Walter, a rookie from Laguna Niguel, California, who has been at the Baseball Trials Academy for the past two years.
Among the other people who should be making long sleeves are Bryce Warrecker, freshman at Santa Barbara High School in Villalobos, and Carlo Lopiccolo and Zach Button, transfers from San Mateo Middle School.
“We have some numbers and some quality in those numbers,” Lee said of his replacements. “Some of our staff continues to grow and can work in situations where the stakes are high.”
As Samuelson moves from the first to the third position, Brooks Lee finally gets a chance to shine as a shortstop, York takes over the first position, and Corio, Gurnick and Marinconz battle for the second position, the Mustangs look solid on the field for the 2021 season.
With Emmerson behind the plate and Cabrera moving from left to right to replace Beasley, Lee is pleased with what he sees in terms of his team’s defensive capabilities.
“We’re much better than we were years ago ” Lee said. “We’re fortunate in the center to be very strong with three top defenders,” noted Emmerson behind the plate, Brooks Lee at shortstop and Cabrera in center field.
“Samuelson made a smooth transition from first to third,” Lee added. “He became a solid third-base defender, allowing York to showcase his first-base skills. ”
“Corio is much improved from last year and will continue to develop at second base in each game. Gurnick and Marinconz can defend and become substitutes at the end of the game, while competing for the starting lineup.
“Doss has a strong arm in right field, while Biller and DiCarlo work in left field,” Lee said. “Overall, we should be able to keep the ball at a higher level than we have in the past.”
Since 2014, Cal Poly has averaged no less than one error per game. From 2015 to 2020, the Mustangs have averaged 1.34 errors per game, compared to just 0.86 errors per game for a conference champion and home regional team in 2014.
“I’m very excited about this year,” Lee said. “This year’s team has the best culture and work ethic we’ve had in years. We have talent in a variety of areas and overall the players have worked hard to be competitive in all aspects of the game.
“We have players who can play anywhere in the country,” Lee adds, “and that creates a competitive and successful mentality that is passed on to the other players in the program.
“When you have the best players on the field, it affects all the other players. It’s hard to quantify what it brings to the team, but it’s what we need to get back to a winning culture.
Only eight Mustangs were able to attend the Summer Ball, which was greatly reduced due to the COWID-19 pandemic.
Brooks Lee finished seventh in the Northwoods League with a .345 batting average and was fourth with 35 RBI and second on shots with 51 while playing for the Willmar Stingers.
Scott pitched well for the Stingers, Marincontz played at St. Cloud, Corio in Rochester, Samuelson at the San Diego Collegiate League Long Boarder, and Warreker and Truth helped the Santa Barbara Woodsmen win their eighth National Baseball Congressional Semiprofessional World Series championship in Wichita, Kansas.
“Our players who were able to play ball over the summer really benefited,” Lee said. “It gave them much-needed playing experience, whether it’s throwing shots or throwing a set.”
The Mustangs also benefited from the dry weather and the approval of state health authorities to practice as many days as possible in the fall.
“We were one of the luckiest colleges in California with a very productive fall, probably the best in a long time ” Lee said. “We had a lot of healthy players and the position players were better represented than in the fall.”
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