SAN LUIS OBISPO -- The last stand was emblematic of the second half of the season in general. A white-knuckle fight to the finish.
Kyle Moses battled through a 10-pitch at-bat, fouling off pitches, digging in, as an announced full house of 2,473 at Baggett Stadium stood, expressing mixed emotions. Finally, a pop-up ended the threat, and a Sacramento State baseball season that started in February and nearly derailed in March amid inner conflict ended in June with a 6-5 defeat to No. 5 Cal Poly on Sunday afternoon in an NCAA Division I Regional contest.
So ends the best season in D-I play for the Hornets, who departed the Central Coast with heads high, most of the season goals accounted for.
Sac State wanted to beat a national power, and it did, defeating then-No. 4 Oregon State 7-6 on April 21. It wanted to win the Western Athletic Conference, and it did. It wanted to win the WAC Tournament, and it did. It wanted to reach the postseason and compete, and it did. It wanted to win 40 games for the first time since 1991, and it did, closing at 40-24.
The final hurdle Sac State couldn’t clear was Cal Poly, a program that was where the Hornets are now just a few seasons ago.
Cal Poly beat Sac State 4-2 in Friday regional opener, and the Hornets responded Saturday by bouncing traditional power Arizona State 5-4, eliminating a program that came in with 166 NCAA playoff wins, third-best all-time, and reached 22 College World Series apperances.
And that last at-bat Sunday? Hornets grit personified.
“That’s what the season’s been all about,” said Sac State catcher and emotional leader Dane Fujinaka, who had a hit and an RBI. “We’ve been through so much this season. We had some internal problems, and our guys started to pick it up and guys started to get better each and every day. We lost the first game of the WAC Tournament, then won four straight to win it, and then here.”
Said fourth-year coach Reggie Christiansen: “That was an unbelievable game. This was a great regional. The crowd was electric, really fun. We had a chance to win at the end, and I can’t be more proud of the guys.”
Sac State was 8-11 this season, and just when things threatened to unravel, Fujinaka and another team leader in center fielder Dave Del Grande stepped forward to ease tension. The Hornets found a new gear amid a 12-game winning streak.
“At midseason, we had players worried about the draft or stats, and Dane and Dave put it to rest,” Christiansen said. “It all came together. We became a team.”
The March hiccup notwithstanding, this is one unified group and program, the players and coaches said. With the potential of new lights at John Smith Field on campus as early as this fall and regional recruits continuing to buy into Christiansen’s vision, the future is bright.
“We’re just getting started,” Christiansen said. “We came here expecting to win the whole thing. The experience that these guys got in the last week is the best thing they’ve experienced in baseball. It’s not even close. We’re building.”
Cal Poly (47-11) scored in each of the first four innings for a 5-1 lead, and the Mustangs stole a season-high six bases in every effort to keep their season alive.
But it’s not in the Hornets’ green DNA to bow meekly. Fujinaka scored Del Grande with a single to right in the fifth inning to cut it to 5-2.
In the eighth inning, Chris Lewis pulled the Hornets within 6-4 with a run-scoring hit. Will Soto’s sacrifice fly scored Lewis to make it 6-5.
Brandon Hunley singled with two outs in the ninth inning to keep hope alive against the Mustangs’ highly regarded closer Reed Reilly before Moses kept everyone anxious with his marathon at-bat. Sac State fans in school-color green applauded, as did Mustangs supporters in their school-color green.
Scotty Burcham had three hits and scored twice Sunday, and he made spectacular plays at shortstop throughout the weekend, as did Soto at third.
Moses had two hits and pitchers Justin Dillon, Chad Perry and closer Sutter McLoughlin didn’t allow a prolific Mustangs team to completely tee off. John Schuknecht drove in two runs for Cal Poly, and leadoff hitter Mark Mathias scored two runs.
Christiansen and Mustangs coach Larry Lee chatted after the game, wishing each other well. The programs will meet in nonconference games in each of the next two seasons.
“I gained a great appreciation for Reggie as a coach and a person,” Lee said. “That program is going to take off.”
Burcham said he’s encouraged by the progress of the program that includes three successive 30-win seasons.
“We won 19 games my first year,” said Burcham, a junior. “We’ve come a long way.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.