Still coming down off the high of a halted seven-game winning streak, the Cal Poly baseball team wasn’t exactly bemoaning Saturday’s defeat or the loss of Bobby Crocker to a hamstring injury.
With five days for its leadoff hitter and starting centerfielder to rest before next week’s Big West Conference series at Long Beach State, falling out of a first-place tie with No. 8 Cal State Fullerton — after the Titans cruised to a 9-3 victory at Baggett Stadium — didn’t qualify as a full-blown crisis for head coach Larry Lee and his team.
Over a two-week period, the Mustangs (18-17, 8-4 Big West) have gone from an afterthought on the national level to a team knocking on the door to the at-large postseason bubble.
The seven-game winning streak included three victories over ranked foes, just its second series victory against Cal State Fullerton in 38 years, and Cal Poly is now in a second-place tie with UC Irvine in the Big West and still within reach of the top spot.
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“It was a great weekend for us,” Lee said. “We put ourselves right back in the Big West race and for a postseason berth. In two weeks we went from a 127 RPI, and (Saturday) morning we’re 61.
“If you can finish mid-50s and you finish this high in your conference standings, you have a chance. We didn’t think that was possible two weeks ago, but we had three wins against top-ranked teams with Fresno and Fullerton, and we have some more high-RPI teams ahead of us on our schedule.”
But some of that rosy outlook could be tempered Thursday, when the availability of Crocker, second baseman Denver Chavez, who also left Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury, and closer Jeff Johnson, who missed the entire series with elbow tendonitis, will be determined for the series against the 49ers.
The team is also without shortstop Mike Miller for the foreseeable future after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis.
“Defensively, it’s a huge blow because Miller gives you a lot of versatility,” Lee said. “It has a compound effect of weakening you at other positions when you have one key guy out and everyone else playing” in unfamiliar spots.
Crocker said he felt a cramp in his hamstring running to first base while leading off the bottom of the first inning. He remained in the game and hit an RBI single for the first run of the game in the bottom of the third.
But when Chavez dropped a sacrifice bunt directly in front of the plate, Crocker was thrown out jogging to second base.
Before the next half-inning, Crocker switched outfield spots with right fielder Mitch Haniger and left the game when Cal State Fullerton put up three runs in the top of the fourth.
“I could still jog on it fine,” Crocker said. “Coach Lee just told me to play it safe on the base paths, so that’s what I did on the sacrifice bunt.
“I just had it wrapped and figured Mitch might be able to cover a little more ground in centerfield, just so I wouldn’t have to run full speed and tweak it any more.”
Chavez and Crocker both exited the game, and it caused a trickle-down effect in the field. Haniger was in center for the first time all season. Freshman Tim Wise got his first action of the year in right. Matt Jensen, who was forced to start at first base for the first time in each game of the series because of Miller’s illness, moved back to second base, and utility infielder Michael Hoo entered at first.
Prior to a two-run rally in the ninth that was spurred by a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Jono Grayson and ensuing throwing error by the Titans, Cal Poly had just four hits.
Cal State Fullerton starter Tyler Pill (5-0) allowed three hits and a walk, while striking out four through seven innings.
Big West home run leader Nick Ramirez hit Nos. 5 and 6 against Cal Poly starter Chase Johnson and reliever Frankie Reed.
As the score got increasingly out of hand, the focus beyond the outcome was the health of Crocker, who is batting .331 on the season with team highs of 45 hits and 26 runs.
“He’s definitely a leader in the clubhouse, on and off the field,” said third baseman Evan Busby, who continued to break out of a slump with a 2-for-3 effort and the Mustangs’ first run. “He’s one of the main guys. He did everything he could today once he went down on the bench to rally everybody, doing his part even though he couldn’t be on the field.”
Busby ended up batting 4 for 10 in the series, upping his average to .220 with his first multi-hit game since April 3.
As a team during the seven-game winning streak, Cal Poly batted .333, and its staff ERA was only 1.43. J.J. Thompson (.393), Crocker (.367), Haniger (.348) and D.J. Gentile (.346.) were all on fire at the plate before the loss.
“We’re obviously not satisfied,” Crocker said. “We’re not going to let it affect us. A conference win is still within reach as long as we have that hope and belief that that we can win conference and beat anybody.”