Mitch Haniger has figured out his swing. The Cal Poly baseball team is playing well as a unit, too. Is it too little, too late for a postseason berth?
On the same day the Mustangs (24-22, 13-8 Big West Conference) were mathematically eliminated from winning the conference title — and the automatic NCAA regional berth that goes along with it — the team remained optimistic.
Cal Poly rallied for an 11-4 win over UC Davis on Sunday’s senior day, finishing off a three-game sweep of the Aggies (16-30, 8-10 Big West), while clinging to the thought that anything’s still possible.
“We just have to keep winning,” said Haniger, a sophomore outfielder who clubbed his fourth home run in the past seven games, “win out and hopefully someone notices that we deserve to be in the playoffs.”
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Like his team, which lost its first six games of the year, Haniger has been having a late-season renaissance.
He was batting just .214 in mid-April and has since raised his average 60 points. Of his five home runs this season, four have come in the past two weeks, and he said it all started when he got locked in during a series victory over Big West leader Cal State Fullerton three weeks ago.
“I just kind of tweaked my swing a little bit and have been staying through balls a lot longer and seeing balls a little bit better,” Haniger said. “So, I just gotta keep putting in the time in the cage and keep working on what I have been.”
Said Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee: “He adjusted his stance and mechanics, and he’s been much better. That’s a needed bat in the middle of the lineup.”
Haniger was 2 for 5 with three RBI and two runs Sunday. His solo homer helped the Mustangs tie a season high with 15 hits and gave them a 6-4 lead in the seventh inning. Cal Poly put the game well out of reach with a four-run rally in the eighth.
But a four-run rally in the fifth, which was spurred by three UC Davis errors and a wild pitch, truly opened the door for Cal Poly.
The Mustangs had eight hits in the first four innings but only a 4-1 deficit to show for it.
There was a booted grounder, a dropped fly ball and a throwing error at the plate in the fifth. Mustangs freshmen Chris Hoo and Jimmy Allen made the Aggies pay for the mistakes.
Hoo drove in Haniger with a double off the wall in left center, and Allen knocked in Hoo with a triple off the same spot in the wall in the very next at-bat to give Cal Poly the lead.
“We struggled early,” Lee said. “It kind of opened the door for us, and we were able to capitalize and continue to attack on runs throughout the course of the ballgame.”
Chase Johnson got the win in relief of starter Joey Wagman, and closer Jeff Johnson came on to finish a game for the first time since going down with elbow tendonitis more than a month ago.
It wasn’t a pressure situation for Johnson, whose save opportunity was wiped away by an RBI single by senior designated hitter D.J. Gentile, an RBI double by senior third baseman J.J. Thompson (which puts him one away from entering Cal Poly’s top-10 career list) and a two-run single by Haniger in the eighth.
“I was saying that before we even started the inning,” said Johnson, who said his elbow again feels just like it did during his blistering start to the season. “Three run lead, I was like, ‘Alright, that’s perfect right there.’ But that’s how our offense is. We’ll throw up a big inning, and I can’t complain with that.”
Though Cal Poly has one final home game Tuesday against Santa Clara before going on the road for three-game series against Pacific and Cal State Bakersfield and a nonconference game at Stanford, players treated Sunday as their last hurrah at Baggett Stadium.
Thompson had his family, including his dog “Smalls,” walk with him on the field for pregame introductions.“For me, it’s been a big part of my life,” Thompson said. “It’s been a great experience, and I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity to have such a great place to play.”
To the team, it’s still a question of how much longer they will get to play this season.
In order to make the program’s second Division I postseason appearance, the Mustangs will have to make it as an at-large selection, something that looks unlikely considering Cal Poly’s winning percentage and RPI ranking of 82 as of this past week.
With starting pitchers Mason Radeke and Steven Fischback, the Mustangs have proven they can compete with the best. They’re hoping if they can sneak back into second place in the Big West, it might be enough to give them a chance to do so at a regional.
“I think so,” Lee said. “If we just win every game, it gets us so many games over .500. We have a record against top 25 teams of 6-4.
“We need to take care of what we can control and see how everything falls when the conference series is completed.”