Hitting with the bases loaded is usually how baseball highlights are born.
Not for head coach Larry Lee’s Cal Poly squad. Not this season anyway.
But the Mustangs are hoping some clutch at-bats in Friday night’s 4-1 victory over visiting UC Riverside in the Big West Conference opener can help turn around what had been a 2-for-22 start with the bases loaded this year.
“It’s definitely on our mind when we’re not on the field,” senior designated hitter D.J. Gentile said, “but when you step in the batter’s box, it’s you against the pitcher. You can’t be thinking about the numbers and all that other stuff because then it’s just going to snowball.
“Coach has been stressing to us that when the bases are loaded, the pressure’s on the pitcher, not on us.”
Gentile took a 2-2 pitch for a passed ball that scored a run with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, and in his return from a wrist injury, shortstop Mike Miller followed a walk to Gentile with a two-run single to break open a close game.
Junior starter Mason Radeke (3-1) got the victory for Cal Poly (9-12, 1-0 Big West) on the mound after shaking off some early control concerns to allow just four hits while striking out seven through 82⁄3 innings.
Matt Andriese (0-3), the starter for the Highlanders (10-10, 0-1 Big West), was on track for his first win after UC Riverside held a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the seventh.
But set up by two Highlanders errors in the inning, J.J. Thompson roped a two-out single to center to plate Gentile and tie the score at 1.
Sophomore right fielder Mitch Haniger was walked intentionally to load the bases with one out in the seventh, but it was hardly a guarantee the Mustangs would score.
Cal Poly loaded the bases in the third on a walk to second baseman Denver Chavez, but Haniger flied out to right, and Gentile struck out to end that threat, dropping the Mustangs’ season batting average with the bases loaded to .091.
“At times, guys are pressing,” said Miller, who had the seventh-inning single to right that scored Crocker and gave Haniger the chance to sneak past a tag at home for Miller’s second RBI. “They’re trying to be ‘the’ guy, when we really just need nine guys doing their part. Everyone’s trying as hard as they can. That’s not the question. I just think everyone’s putting too much pressure on themselves.”
The pressure is at least partly because of the injuries that have hit the team, Lee said.
Miller and first baseman Tim Wise made their returns from injury. Miller, the team’s leading hitter at .431, hadn’t played since March 13 and missed a total of six games.
But Wise reaggravated his hamstring injury, and is now put in a category with second baseman Matt Jensen, whom Lee said is still weeks away from returning to the lineup.
Third baseman Evan Busby also sat out. He is day-to-day with a concussion suffered against Minnesota last week. Miller’s wrist is at about 70 percent full strength.
“What happened tonight, we were in need of,” Lee said of the bases-loaded runs. “We were just snakebit. And with all of our injuries, we’ve had guys that just weren’t quite ready to perform at this level, and we’ve had other guys that were just trying to do too much. It’s just a tough situation.”
There are some positive signs for the Mustangs.
Cal Poly is one game up on the Highlanders, a team the Mustangs have failed to take a series from in each of the past four seasons.
Thompson, an injury fill-in at several positions has been on fire lately, increasing his batting average from .158 to .316 with six two-hit efforts in the past 10 games.
Crocker is riding a seven-game hitting streak, which he extended with a third-inning bunt single, and has raised his average to .338 at the leadoff spot.
Proving he is human after all, Jeff Johnson walked his first batter of the season in 14 innings.
He struck out UC Riverside’s Keith Holinsworth with the bases loaded to end the game, upping his season total to 20 while lowering his team-leading ERA to 0.66.
Radeke wanted to complete the game, during which he set a new career high with 141 pitches, but the Mustangs were glad to get a victory for their ace after last year’s Friday night starter, Matt Leonard, started the season 0-7.
“Our pitching has been there pretty much all year for us,” Gentile said. “It was good that we stepped up and drove some runners in. He was busting his butt, and it’s a good feeling to get him a ‘W’.”