Mitch Haniger made a picture-perfect diving layout for a fly ball in right center.
Ranging back from short, Mike Miller’s leap to field a pop later in the first inning was equally impressive.
There was only one problem with the two would-be web gems. They weren’t outs.
Denver Chavez continued to show why his promotion to Cal Poly’s starting lineup was better late than never, but after the Mustangs’ two best players had near outs turn into hits, the defense continued its wrong-foot start in a 6-4 loss to CSU Bakersfield on Sunday.
Two first-inning errors contributed to two runs for the Roadrunners (20-25). Though Haniger and Miller weren’t faulted when neither could quite get their gloves on the ball during their athletic attempts, the plays were early omens that Cal Poly (29-20) would have a hard time sweeping its nonconference visitor.
“We lost by two and they ended up scoring those two runs in the first,” Miller said. “So, you could say that was the difference in the game. There were some plays that were a little unfortunate for us, but at the same time, there were some plays we definitely needed to handle. We didn’t, and it allowed them to get some momentum early in the game.”
Chavez was 1 for 3 with a solo home run and two RBI, raising his average to .270 in a late-season surge.
The junior second baseman from Santa Barbara started the year on the bench after suffering a preseason hamstring injury. When the team got off to a 7-1 start without him and took series wins against Oklahoma State and Washington, it was hard to make a case for a lineup change.
Evan Busby moved from third base to second in the offseason and held the job during the early stretch.
“Bus filled in that first weekend,” said Chavez, who also broke his hand in the offseason and suffered a minor shoulder injury late last month, “and he kind of played well, played well defensively, did his job and stayed in there.
“Maybe second or third weekend, I was ready to go 100 percent in practice. Bus was doing well, the team was doing well, that’s kind of how it goes sometime.
“I’m just glad now that I’m able to contribute more.”
Chavez has started only 19 of Cal Poly’s 49 games. In those limited at-bats, he’s successfully stolen seven bases in eight attempts. His 13 runs and nine RBI are more than any other Mustangs player with fewer than 31 starts.
In fewer at-bats, Chavez’s offensive production is either close to or better than that of Busby, who batted .172 while making 31 starts. Busby, however, has the edge with a .988 fielding percentage, second on the team only to Haniger’s .993.
“Denver, he’s come in and done a great job, kind of like a catalyst for our offense at the bottom of he lineup,” said Miller, who had a team-high three hits in five at-bats Sunday.
“He’s one of our faster guys on the team, so it’s a threat on the bags every time he’s on. He does a great job executing hit-and-runs, drags, pushes, all that stuff. He’s a rock at second. He’s heady out there, so it brings a lot to the table.”
Chavez’s second-inning sacrifice fly capped a three-run rally that saw Cal Poly take a 3-2 lead, but after Mustangs starting pitcher Kyle Brueggemann allowed three straight base hits to open the third and a one-out RBI double to Bakersfield’s P.J. Maestas, Cal Poly was right back in a 5-3 hole.
“That’s kind of been our M.O. on Sundays,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said. “We’re not very good early on the mound, and most Sundays, we’re not able to battle back and overcome our deficits.
“Today, we did. In the second, we scored three, but we gave it right back to them.”
When Chavez lifted a 2-1 pitch from Roadrunners starter Jeff McKenzie in the seventh inning, it was as close as Cal Poly would get on the scoreboard.
McKenzie pitched a complete game, giving up all four runs, three earned, on nine hits and four walks. He struck out five. Bakersfield struck for 12 hits against a combination of four Mustangs pitchers, none of which lasted longer than 3 1⁄3 innings.
Chris Hoo was 2 for 3 with a run, Nick Torres was 1 for 3 with a run, and Matt Russell was 1 for 4 with a two-run double.
The best bright spot for Cal Poly was Chavez, who figures on being a key contributor for the rest of this season and the next as long as he can move beyond the nagging injuries that have plagued him in each of his seasons in San Luis Obispo.
“Over the last month, he’s got his opportunity, and he’s played well,” Lee said. “When he’s confident as a player, he plays extremely well. That’s the key for him, just to be aggressive and live with the decisions you make on the field, not be cautious.”