Making the short move down Highway 1, Mike Miller went from Cuesta College to Cal Poly charged with filling a hole at shortstop.
But just as soon as he earned the starting job last year, Miller lost it with a slow start at the plate and an injury that landed him on the bench.
“I had some doubts last year, within myself,” Miller said, “and you can’t perform that way.”
In 25 at-bats in 2010, Miller had just four hits, batted .160 and drove in a single run. That was after hitting .392 with 67 hits and just nine strikeouts in 195 plate appearances for the Cougars as a freshman.
It was a tough first season of transition from junior college to NCAA Division I baseball, but through seven games this year, the junior has been the team’s best hitter by far, waiting for the rest of the Mustangs to find their way out of a collective slump.
Going into this weekend’s home-opening series with Valparaiso (1-8), which begins a string of 17 of the next 18 at home with a 6 p.m. start at Baggett Stadium on Friday, Miller is coming off back-to-back four-hit games and hitting .609 with four doubles, four RBI and four runs scored.
Only one other player for Cal Poly (1-6) — freshman first baseman Tim Wise (.333) — is hitting better than .269.
“I wouldn’t count on hitting .700,” Miller said, “but I plan on having a good at-bat every at-bat I’m on the field. I really don’t want to give away any at-bats. I want to get on base, I want to score every time I’m up there.
“I know you can’t have an on-base percentage of 1.000, but I want to be the toughest out in America and not let up that focus at the plate ever.”
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said hitting is contagious.
Judging by the Mustangs’ win over Fresno State on Tuesday, the first victory of the season after losing six straight to start, they may have finally caught what Miller has.
Juniors Matt Jensen, Bobby Crocker and senior D.J. Gentile combined for seven RBI in an 11-4 victory at Fresno State, which was previously 6-0 and came into the week with a No. 21 national ranking.
“Having them be undefeated and us having to get a win and finally getting it off them,” junior pitcher Mason Radeke said, “I think it might put more energy into the clubhouse.”
Cal Poly put up six runs on Bulldogs freshman Tyler Linehan, who was a 14th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in the 2010 draft.
“The middle-of-our-lineup guys need to feel comfortable with runners on base,” said Lee, who saw the power-hitting trio above combine for only 6 RBI in the first six games. “Some of that is just early season, some of it’s the quality of pitching that we’re facing, being on the road. That’s why this homestand is extremely important to get the majority of our players on track and get them feeling comfortable at the plate.”
The pitching staff has been fairly consistent in defeat.
Sophomore pitcher Kyle Anderson — the new Sunday starter in what Radeke called the best Mustangs staff he’s been a part of — has a 1.86 ERA in 92⁄3 innings, but his record stands at 0-2.
Reliever Frankie Reed has a team-best 1.17 ERA in four appearances, and closer Jeff Johnson has six strikeouts in 31⁄3 innings.
Adding to the frustration prior to the victory over Fresno State was the feeling that Cal Poly could have reversed several of its results.
Four of the six losses came by one run, and Lee felt his team was in contention in the other two as well.
“We’ve been very competitive in all of our games,” Lee said. “Just at this point in our season, we hadn’t been able to come up with any wins. So, it was good to beat a top-25 opponent, and now hopefully that will lead to bigger and better.”