Alex McKenna, Cal Poly

(Shotgun Spratling)


Cal Poly Gets Victory in Must-Win Series


LONG BEACH, Calif — Michael Sanderson admitted it. He had been dominated on Friday. The Cal Poly senior first baseman had gone 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.

Saturday didn’t start off much better as he hit two balls hard, but both landed in the gloves of Long Beach State outfielders. So Sanderson put it where no gloves resided in his next at-bat. He launched a game-tying solo home run over Blair Field’s left field wall in the sixth inning.

An inning later, he put the Mustangs ahead with a deep fly that nestled in the right-center field gap for a two-run double. Sanderson scored two pitches later when Nick Meyer singled to left field.

“I knew the adjustments that I had to make,” Sanderson said. “I was just feeling good today and I was able to get my pitches.”

The three-run seventh inning propelled Cal Poly to a 6-3 win over No. 10 Long Beach State to even the series between the top two teams in the Big West standings.

“We’ve talked about every series that we need to win the series to be relevant next week and that’s what today is, so we’ve got to come out tomorrow and win it,” Sanderson said.

Michael Sanderson, Cal PolySenior Michael Sanderson has been a consistent performer in the middle of the lineup. (Shotgun Spratling)

The Breakdown

Game Changer

The big seventh inning Cal Poly (21-24, 9-5) produced never should have happened. It was the antithesis of the pitching and defensive effort Long Beach State (29-15-1, 14-3) strives for.

Reliever Eli Villalobos got a quick grounder and then struck out Cal Poly’s most dangerous hitter, Alex McKenna, looking at an outside pitch. But then he issued a four-pitch walk. Two out walks are never a good thing, but it was complicated by a defensive lapse from an unlikely source.

With two strikes, Villalobos threw a pitch by Kyle Marinconz, but Long Beach State’s stalwart catcher David Banuelos let the ball get by him for a passed ball. It was just the fourth passed ball of the season for Banuelos despite him catching nearly every game. Marinconz reached on the dropped third strike, continuing the inning and bringing up Sanderson to provide the go-ahead hit.

“I don’t think we’ve really beat ourselves very much all year,” Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley said. “If you were going to say, what do we do well? One thing is that we’re not going to beat ourselves. We don’t make a ton of errors. Those type of things. And today was kind of like that.

“That’s where you want to take advantage of it offensively. They did. It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to stop the bleeding. You can’t allow those opportunities. We’ve done it. We didn’t do it today. That’s kind of why we’re sitting on the short end of the stick.”

While Long Beach State struggled to play to its normal standards, Cal Poly played a much cleaner game than it had on Friday night. The Mustangs executed with situational hitting. They moved runners, going 6 for 11 on advancement opportunities. They got clutch hits, batting .400 for the game with runners in scoring position and getting the run home in their only man-on-third-with-less-than-two-outs situation.

“Just overall a real good team win,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said. “We played a clean game today and played much better.”

Star Spotlight

Spencer Howard, Cal PolySpencer Howard has caught scouts’ eyes. (Shotgun Spratling)

In the second inning, Cal Poly starter Spencer Howard threw a full-count changeup that was up in the zone. Banuelos turned on the pitch and hit it over the left field wall for a two-run homer. Howard allowed just one hit out of the infield over the next five innings, settling into a groove and giving the Mustangs a chance to mount a comeback.

“He didn’t let that faze him. He just went right to work and went to the next pitch,” Lee said. “We talk about getting into the next pitch. It’s always easier said than done. He’s done a real good job of doing that.”

Howard pitched into the eighth inning, giving up two runs on six hits to pick up his fifth win of the season. Coming into the season, he was expected to be a viable bullpen option for Cal Poly, but the redshirt sophomore righthander has developed a new mentality this season and has gone from non-descript reliever to one of the West Coast’s best-kept secrets (5-1, 2.27).

After making velocity gains over his first two years in the Mustangs program, Howard went through a stretch where he was trying to rely solely on his newfound heater, which was 91-94 mph against Long Beach State and has routinely been up to 95 this season and touched 96. But after a sitdown with pitching coach Chal Fanning early in the season where they went over Howard’s location charts, Howard went back to mentally emphasizing spotting up his pitches rather than trying to throw them by hitters.

“I kind of got out of my ‘throwing too hard’ stage where I would just think everything is velocity,” Howard said. “I’ve moved past that and started actually learning how to pitch — read guys swings, learn sequences and stuff like that.”

Howard has developed a changeup that is devastating against lefties and has a cutter/slider that he is able to morph into whichever pitch best fits the situation. He has become a frontline starter that has solidified the Mustangs rotation and given them a chance to win every weekend along with Erich Uelmen on Fridays.

“With Friday/Saturday, we feel like we can win any series with those guys on the bump,” Sanderson said. “We just have so much confidence. We weren’t able to get yesterday, but then we always know we’ve got Spencer. We’re pretty confident on Friday and Saturdays.”

Top Performances

Cal Poly:

  • Spencer Howard: 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K; Win
  • Michael Sanderson: 2-for-5, 2 R, 2B, HR, 3 RBI
  • Alex McKenna: 2-for-5, R, 2B

Long Beach State:

  • John Sheaks: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, K
  • David banuelos: 2-for-4, R, HR, 2 RBI
  • Luke Rasmussen: 1-for-2, 2 R, 2 BB, SB

In Their Words

Cal Poly first baseman Michael Sanderson talks about coming up with the clutch hits in the Mustangs’ 6-3 win over Long Beach State to even a must-win series.

Sanderson also discusses his senior year and the effect of having two stalwart pitchers at the front of the weekend rotation:

Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley talks about the Dirtbags uncharacteristically beating themselves in a 6-3 loss to Cal Poly and the outing of Spencer Howard shutting down Long Beach State’s offense.

Buckley also discusses the impact David Banuelos has had behind the plate and in the lower half of the lineup for the Dirtbags:

Bottom Line

– This is essentially a do-or-die series for Cal Poly. With a sub .500 overall record and an RPI in the high 120s, the Mustangs only shot at making it to the postseason is to win the conference’s automatic bid. That’s why Larry Lee spent 20 minutes talking with his team after Friday night’s loss. His pep talk worked as the his charges executed much better and Spencer Howard gave them a stellar outing on the mound to even the series up.

– “Last night and today, those are the two best arms we’ve seen in a while,” Troy Buckley said. “We need to figure out how can we still give ourselves a chance to win when we don’t swing the bat. That’s kind of what was a little bit of it today. We didn’t string much together offensively. I’m not necessarily worried about the group. One loss shouldn’t throw everything into a tailspin. We come out tomorrow and we have a fairly loaded bullpen and we come out and compete.”

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