SAN LUIS OBISPO -- Reggie Christiansen made one thing abundantly clear.
The Sacramento State baseball coach didn’t take his upstart bunch to the Central Coast as some sort of charity mission, to fill out the four-team NCAA Division I Regional as loyal, good soldiers. The Hornets are here to inflict some damage, to show they belong.
The first blow was delivered by Cal Poly, the host school and the overwhelming top seed that boasts a No. 5 national ranking, but the Hornets scored a measure of respect in showing that an underdog can snarl with the best of them. With ace Matt Imhof overcoming a shaky start and receiving just enough timely hits and big defensive plays, some of them spectacular, the Mustangs beat No. 4 seed Sac State 4-2 in an opener on Friday night in front of a packed house of nearly 3,000 at Baggett Stadium.
In a battle of promising left-handed pitchers, the veteran Imhof outdid rookie Sam Long. Imhof, a hard-throwing 6-foot-5 junior projected to go in the top two rounds of next week’s major-league draft, walked three in the first inning before settling into his familiar groove. He allowed three hits, two in the eighth inning, and a run, walked five and struck out four, often hitting 94 mph as a flood of scouts charted his every move, in 72/3 inningsto improve to 10-4.
As a warm day gave way to 56-degree temperatures amid the see-your-breath fog that rolled in, Imhof departed to a rousing standing ovation, a sea of Cal Poly green saluting him. Those in Sac State green applauded Long’s gritty effort. A freshman who could have graduated with his Del Campo High School class this Monday had he not graduated early to join the Hornets’ baseball program, Long took the loss graciously. He allowed eight hits and all the runs but came away with immeasurable gains. Long had some encouraging moments, too, walking just two and striking out four.
Sac State made some terrific defensive plays, including by third baseman Will Soto, shortstop Scotty Burcham and second baseman Scott Loper, who had two hits. Cal Poly leadoff hitter Mark Mathias had two hits and two RBIs.
“It was a great experience, to say the least,” said Long, who remained upbeat as his record dipped to 8-2. “I made a few mistakes, and they made me pay.”
Said Christiansen of Long: “I was proud of this guy. He kept us in the game. We lost to a guy (Imhof) who is special. He was effectively wild, and his stuff was electric. He was what we expected.”
Sac State (39-23) loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth inning. The Hornets scored twice on a groundout and an error as Dane Fujinaka and Loper sprinted home, but Sac State posed no more threats as Cal Poly (46-10) moved to 28-3 at home this season and the Big West Conference improved to 4-0 on the day.
In the schools’ 59th meeting since 1950, Sac State is where Poly once was, a rising-fast D-I program eager for more. The Mustangs have enjoyed D-I success, and coach Larry Lee improved to 8-1 against the Hornets. But Sac State also garnered Lee’s attention. He was curious to see how his team would perform after a 12-day layoff from game action.
“Sac State’s a very good team and came in hot,” said Lee, whose team plays Pepperdine on Saturday at 6 p.m. “We came out ready to play.”
As pained as the Hornets were in coming up just short against a team that was ranked No. 1 nationally for a week this season, they can do something about it: prevail on Saturday in a must-win contest against Arizona State at 1 p.m. here. That won’t be easy, certainly, as the Wildcats are steeped in tradition with 37 D-I playoff visits and three national titles, but the Hornets fear no one.
The last time Sac State was against the wall, its season on the brink, was in last week’s Western Athletic Conference tournament in Mesa, Ariz. The Hornets lost their opener to Cal State Bakersfield 4-1, then reeled off a four-game winning streak capped by a 10-3 effort over Utah Valley in the title game behind ace Brennan Leitao, the Hornets’ career victory leader. He’ll start against ASU.
The Hornets to a man are confident with Leitao, who didn’t start Friday to get an extra day of rest.
“Oh yeah, absolutely we expect to do well here,” Sac State first baseman Rhys Hoskins said.
Added Christiansen: “We didn’t just come here to be here. We expect to win. We don’t want to be the first team to go home. We like our chances.”