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2014 San Luis Obispo NCAA Regional Preview

Cal Poly was dominating UCLA in the 2013 Los Angeles Regional. But then Matt Imhof’s no hitter was broken up and then after a couple of bloop hits, the shutout was no longer in place. A pitching change followed by a strikeout and a routine flyball should have ended the Bruins’ threat, but instead, Nick Torres lost the ball in the lights. UCLA tied the game and took the lead the next inning. Cal Poly never recovered.

That is what has been on the Mustangs’ minds for the past 12 months. Finally, Cal Poly has its opportunity for redemption. Imhof will likely be on the mound Friday night. Torres will undoubtedly be in right field, but instead of Jackie Robinson Field, Torres will be patrolling the Baggett Stadium grass.

With a 45-10 record and a No. 6 ranking in the NCBWA poll, the Mustangs earned the honor of hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time in Division I program history. They will welcome the Pac-12′s Arizona State, and a pair of California conference champs in Pepperdine and Sacramento State.
Will anyone be able to knock Cal Poly off at Baggett Stadium where it is 27-3 at home this season?

1. Cal Poly Mustangs (45-10, 19-5) –
Big West Champions

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Chris Hoo
1B – John Schuknecht
2B — Mark Mathias
SS — Peter Van Gansen
3B — Jimmy Allen
LF — Zack Zehner
CF – Jordan Ellis
RF — Nick Torres
DH – Brian Mundell

SP — Matt Imhof
SP – Casey Bloomquist
SP — Justin Calomeni
RP — Taylor Chris
CL — Reed Reilly

The Mustangs enter with one of the top records in the country and their first ever Big West Conference title. They feature a balanced ballclub they can beat you several ways.

Cal Poly has two stud frontline pitchers in lefty strikeout artist Matt Imhof (9-4, 2.55 ERA) and righty sinkerballer Casey Bloomquist (12-1, 1.60 ERA), but also has a pair of lights out relievers from each side of the rubber with southpaw Taylor Chris (0.91 ERA, 49 K in 49.1 IP) and power-armed righty Reed Reilly (1.67 ERA, 52 K in 43 IP) closing games out multiple innings at a time.

Peter Van Gansen and the Stangs have been jumping over every obstacle.

The lineup is the deepest in the San Luis Obispo Regional. Mark Mathias (.378 BA, 74 H, 46 R, 36 RBI) has been a beast all season, earning a move from the bottom half of the lineup to leadoff halfway through the season. The Big West Player of the Year has been the catalyst getting on in front of Nick Torres (.323, 16 2B, 5 HR, 47 RBI) and Brian Mundell (.388 OBP, 40 R, 4 HR, 41 RBI) in the middle.

Jimmy Allen (.301, 37 RBI) and Zach Zehner (.329) have provided support behind them. Allen returned for his senior year after a disappointing junior season that saw him get hot in the regional. He was red hot in Cal Poly’s final series against Cal State Northridge, but the Mustangs didn’t play the final week of the regular season. It will be interesting to see if the week off will have any impact on a lineup that was swinging the bats well.

Any rustiness should be negated by Cal Poly’s ability to get production throughout the order. There have been five different hitters amass hitting streaks of eight games or better this year and the Mustangs most productive and clutch hitter may be Chris Hoo. The senior catcher is typically paired with Peter Van Gansen in the bottom third where they stretch the lineup and challenge pitchers to work their way back to the top of the lineup. Hoo and Van Gansen both sport on base percentages above .400 and have combined for 59 R and 52 RBI.

Key Player: Justin Calomeni/Danny Zandona - The biggest concern for Cal Poly is questions surrounding its depth of arms. Two starters and two relievers can take you a long way, but someone else is invariably going to have to step up for the Mustangs to advance to the Super Regionals. Will that be freshman Justin Calomeni (8-2, 3.50 ERA), who allowed only five hits and one run in 9.2 innings in his final two starts? Or will Larry Lee turn the ball over to long reliever Danny Zandona (4-0, 2.66 ERA), who in three starts allowed just three earned runs in 16 innings pitched? One, if not both, is going to be key this weekend.

2. Arizona State Sun Devils (33-22, 19-11) -
Pac-12 At Large

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Brian Serven
1B – Nathaniel Causey
2B — Tucker Esmay
SS – Drew Stankiewicz
3B — Dalton DiNatale
LF — Jake Peevyhouse
CF — Johnny Sewald
RF – Trever Allen
DH — RJ Ybarra

SP – Brett Lilek
SP — Ryan Kellogg
SP — Daren Gillies
RP — Jordan Aboites
CL – Ryan Burr

There is one team with a consistent postseason pedigree and that’s the Sun Devils. They are a Regional mainstay and would have 14 consecutive appearances except for being banned from the 2012 season. But ASU needs to start making some noise in the postseason to hush the building din of alumni that believe Tim Esmay may not be the coach to consistently get the team to Omaha.

Brett Lilek has a fastball in the mid 90s.

Arizona State relies on a two-headed lefty monster in Brett Lilek (4-4, 2.59 ERA) and Ryan Kellogg (8-3, 3.84 ERA) at the front of the rotation and the dynamic power stuff of Ryan Burr at the back end of the bullpen. Burr is erratic (37 BB in 43.1 IP), but loves the high-pressure situations as evidenced by his inability to stay in the starting rotation at the beginning of the season. Jordan Aboites (5-2, 43 K in 41.1 IP, 28 appearances) is another strong arm out of the bullpen. He also is the team’s backup shortstop, having made seven starts there this season.

The Sun Devils have an athletic lineup that has good plate discipline and uses the whole field, according to one opposing coach. They feature four left-handed bats that make it tough for an opposing coach to get arm-side matchups, which will make it interesting to see if either Pepperdine or Cal Poly try to use their left-handed starters against ASU rather than sticking to their normal weekend rotation.

Key Player: Johnny Sewald - The sophomore centerfielder should know a little bit about Pepperdine after big brother, Paul, pitched against the Waves for West Coast Conference rival San Diego, prior to being drafted by the New York Mets in the 10th round.

Johnny Sewald is the catalyst for the Sun Devils. He and Drew Stankiewicz are the only two speed threats, but when they get on base it changes the complexion of the lineup. They put pressure on pitchers to throw strikes and allow Nathaniel Causey and RJ Ybarra in the middle of the lineup to get more fastballs. Sewald enters with a .427 OBP and leads the team with 44 runs. How much of a thorn in the side he can be for opposing pitchers could determine if Arizona State advances or not.

3. Pepperdine Waves (39-16, 18-9) –
West Coast Conference Champion

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C — Aaron Barnett
1B — Brad Anderson
2B — Hutton Moyer
SS – Manny Jefferson
3B – Austin Davidson
LF – Brandon Caruso
CF – Aaron Brown
RF — Bryan Langlois
DH — Chris Fornaci

SP – Corey Miller
SP — Aaron Brown
SP — Jackson McClelland
RP — AJ Puckett
CL — Eric Karch

After a rough 2013 campaign, Pepperdine saw both Corey Miller and Aaron Brown decline to sign MLB contract offers after being drafted. That was the turning point for the 2014 season. Both Miller and Brown have been money on the mound for head coach Steve Rodriguez, combining to go 19-5.

Aaron Brown can do it all. Will anyone slow him this weekend?

Miller has been a workhorse on Friday afternoons. He has pitched 105 innings and allowed only 25 walks, consistently working down in the zone and forcing teams to string together hits rather than getting any assistance from Miller. He led the West Coast Conference with a 1.70 ERA and is a big reason the Waves were able to win both the regular season and WCC Tournament titles.

But the star of the squad is unquestionably Brown. Always having the potential, Brown has finally stayed healthy this season — no more pitching with a cast — and has blossomed into one of the nation’s premier two-way players. On the mound, he earned WCC Pitcher of the Year, leading the conference in wins, strikeouts and hits per nine innings; was second in ERA (2.24) behind Miller and third with a 1.09 WHIP. He is just as deadly with the bat, knocking 12 home runs and 45 RBI.

While Pepperdine’s core of upperclassmen, including Austin Davidson, Bryan Langlois, Matt Maurer and Eric Karch, have led the way, the Waves have been bolstered by a tremendous influx of talent in the freshman and sophomore classes. Freshman catcher Aaron Barnett leads the team with a .378 batting average while sophomores Brad Anderson (.307, 5 HR, 31 RBI) and Hutton Moyer (.300, 46 R, 23 2B) have really blossomed on the right side of the infield this year.

Key Player: Manny Jefferson - The Waves’ freshman shortstop has been a tremendous constant defensively this season, making all the routine plays and some exceptional ones along the way — including the game-changing grab in the WCC Championship game. But when Manny Jefferson is able to contribute offensively, the Waves lineup becomes exponentially more dangerous. Despite his slight frame, he has a little pop (10 2B, 1 HR), but he only has a .260 OBP. When he is able to get on base, it lengthens the lineup and more quickly forces pitchers back into the death trap that is the middle of the lineup.

4. Sacramento State Hornets (39-22, 21-6) –
Western Athletic Conference Champion

Projected Starters & Starting Rotation:
C – Dane Fujinaka
1B – Rhys Hoskins
2B — Brandon Hunley
SS — Scotty Burcham
3B — Will Soto
LF — Kyle Moses
CF — David Del Grande
RF — Nathan Lukes
DH — Chris Lewis

SP – Sam Long
SP — Brennan Leitao
SP – Justin Dillon
RP — Alex Palsha
CL – Sutter McLaughlin

Sacramento State is making its first ever Division I NCAA Tournament appearance after losing its first game and battling through the loser’s bracket to win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament. But don’t think it’ll just be a pushover 2-and-que for the Hornets. They split a pair of games with top seed Oregon State, rallying from a 6-1 deficit to take an 8-7 victory in the first game.

The Hornets are led by 6’4″ masher Rhys Hoskins, who knocked 12 home runs this season after leading the Cape Cod League in RBI last summer. The WAC Player of the Year enters with a .330 batting average, 44 runs and 53 RBI to go with his power numbers.

Although, he’s all you’ll likely hear about Sacramento State on the television broadcast, Hoskins is in fact not the only player on this team. The Hornets are a veteran squad that returned seven starters in the lineup. Nathan Lukes and Kyle Moses are undersized, but speedy outfielders that are both scrappy hitters. Lukes hit .357 to lead the team and both he and Moses had on base percentages north of .400. Along with Hoskins, Will Soto, Brandon Hunley and David Del Grande each hit at least five homers, so there is some pop in the lineup, especially if the wind is blowing out at Baggett Stadium.

Sacramento State’s pitching rotation was bolstered by the early arrival of Sam Long, who graduated high school in December and was suiting up with the Hornets in February rather than pitching for his high school team. The righty has built together an impressive statline with an 8-1 record and a 2.86 ERA in 88 innings. He is complemented by All-WAC junior Brennan Leitao (9-4, 2.21 ERA), who pitched five innings on on two days rest to earn the victory in the WAC Championship last week.

Key Player: Chad Lewis - Last season, Chad Lewis was one of the essential pieces in the Sac State lineup, hitting .349 with 46 RBI en route to Freshman All-American honors. But this season, he struggled to a .181 batting average  and just eight RBI in the regular season. But things finally started clicking in the WAC Tournament for Lewis. He was named the WAC Tournament MVP after hitting .500 with five runs and  seven RBI. He now is in the midst of a seven-game hit streak. If he continues hitting to his capabilities, he provides extra pop to help protect Hoskins. With Hoskins being pitched extra carefully in the Regional, someone like Lewis will have to be the one to do the damage if the Hornets are going to sting anyone this weekend.

5 Top Players

1. Matt Imhof (Cal Poly) – Tom Glavine-type lefty. Mixes pitches well. Fastball gets on top of hitters quickly. 120 K in 91.2 IP.

2. Aaron Brown (Pepperdine) - Power at the plate and on the mound. Physical presence in the batter’s box and on the bump. Will run through a wall to make a play.

3. Ryan Burr (Arizona State) – Imposing figure at 6’4″, 224 lbs. Has closer mentality and a heavy fastball in low- to mid-90s with a power breaking ball. Opponents hit just .151 against him.

4. Rhys Hoskins (Sacramento State) – Has raw power with above average bat speed. Top prospect in the WAC, so used to teams pitching around him.

5. Nick Torres (Cal Poly) - Line drive hitter with some pop. Does everything well, but nothing great. Looking for redemption after losing fly ball in lights that changed course of 2013 college baseball season.

  • Pat Slammerbear

    To be fair to Nick Torres, it should be noted that the light standards at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium are notoriously low, and the ball simply went above the illumination and disappeared. A hazard of playing there.

    • Shotgun Spratling

      Pat, it could have happened to anyone. There wasn’t much Torres could have done about it. It’s one of the worst feelings you can have on the ball field because there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Your eyes continue darting back and forth, just hoping you’ll catch a glimpse of the ball and have a chance to make some kind of play on the ball.

      And it’s amazing how that one play potentially altered the entire NCAA Tournament. UCLA was barely tested for the rest of their run after that point.