Cal Poly baseball head coach Larry Lee knows his team was unexpectedly beset by injuries this season, but that doesn’t lessen the burn of a missed opportunity.
With Monday’s start to the Major League Draft bearing down, Lee looked back on his fifth winning season in the past seven with a measure of disappointment.
“I still think it’s underachieving when you need to set the bar high,” Lee said, “and we definitely underachieved from an offensive standpoint, which made us underachieve as a whole. You can’t be satisfied with finishing a game over .500, but we did.”
Cal Poly (27-26) made half a case for a second Division I postseason berth in program history.
The Mustangs were 7-4 against top-25 teams. They finished third in the highly respected Big West Conference. They started pitchers with enough experience and savvy to compete with the best and brought in relievers with enough stuff to slam the door.
But in a year where new mandatory BBCOR bats helped curb offense around the nation, Cal Poly’s pitching staff couldn’t afford to give up five runs or its offense couldn’t keep up.
Of the Mustangs’ 27 victories, only one came when allowing more than four runs.
The team hit .254 as a whole, and only two regulars had batting averages better than .300. Home runs were down from 49 to 22 compared to 2010, when Cal Poly had six batters over .320.
“We didn’t have the consistency with our offense,” Lee said. “Some of that was due to injuries, but you can’t put everything on that when it came to our offense. We just didn’t really swing the bat well for the majority of our season. Rarely were we able to put up runs in bunches.”
After starting the season 0-6, the injuries were hard to ignore.
Junior infielder Matt Jensen, a former freshman All-American at second base and an invitee to last year’s Team USA baseball tryouts, was bothered by a preseason wrist injury that eventually landed him on the bench for a few weeks.
Shortstop Mike Miller got off to a hot start, batting over .400, before a hand injury sidelined him. Miller came back but was forced out again by a mysterious illness that caused severe flu-like symptoms. He finished the season batting .306.
Freshman first baseman Tim Wise, second baseman Denver Chavez and third baseman Evan Busby all spent time on the injured list, too.
Just when the lineup began to normalize and the Mustangs capped a seven-game winning streak by taking two of three from eventual Big West champion Cal State Fullerton, center fielder Bobby Crocker, the team’s offensive catalyst, went down with a hamstring injury.
With the idea of making the postseason becoming more plausible, the Mustangs stumbled to a 9-9 record in their final 18 games.
“After two weeks of the season and seeing how our performance was on the field,” Lee said, “I didn’t know if we would be able to turn it around, and we did. Take out the first two weekends and the last weekend, and everything in between was pretty good.”
Now the focus shifts to the draft.
Crocker, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior with an attractive combination of size and speed, is expected to be the first Cal Poly player chosen and is likely to turn pro.
Junior closer Jeff Johnson could be the next to go after wielding a mid-90s fastball and devastating splitter to rack up 40 strikeouts in only 27 2⁄3 innings. Johnson missed a chunk of time with elbow tendinitis but still had a staff-leading 1.63 ERA.
Ace starter Mason Radeke, who went 8-4 with a 3.07 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 99 2⁄3 innings, is another junior who could be lured by a top-20 round selection.
And Jensen, though he finished batting only .209 with 13 RBI, has been on the scouting radar long enough in three injury-plagued seasons to be drafted on potential rather than results.
Combine those potential losses with the departure of seniors J.J. Thompson, D.J. Gentile, Steven Fischback, Eugene Wright and Frankie Reed, and Cal Poly will have a lot to replace next season.
More than 60 percent of the total innings pitched could be walking out the door, and those pitchers represent two out of every three victories and eight of nine saves.
The number of pitchers returning with more than five full innings of experience could be as few as four.
“Our main void will be replacing our pitchers,” Lee said. “It’s what group of pitchers will replace Radeke, Fischback, Frankie Reed and Jeff Johnson. They’re the main reason why we won ballgames this year.
“Your young players that got experience, you need them to come back at a higher level. We need everybody that was part of the equation this year to continue to get better and to come back at a much, much higher level than they were this year.”