Chico State Baseball: Down Year Brings Great Appreciation…..

 

For the first time since 1994 the Chico State Baseball team will finish with a sub .500 record. If you pause for a moment and let that sink in, it almost doesn’t seem real. There are young men and women who are seniors in college who were not even born yet the last time the Wildcat baseball program did not have a winning season.

Later in this blog we will lament the season that was. But, for now lets appreciate the amazing run the Chico State Baseball program has had over the last two decades. This run of greatness has been epic. During this 21-year stretch the Cats have won 2 national titles, 9 regional championships and have been to the playoffs an incredible 18 times in the last 19 years. I would venture to guess this has been an unprecedented run of success in Division II baseball.

To pinpoint how and why the Wildcats struggled this year is difficult to answer, it was a multi-pronged meltdown. There was not one thing that went wrong this year for the Wildcats. There were numerous problems that became a tsunami of baseball inadequacies that led to the Wildcats demise. The struggles of the Wildcat program is certainly not lost on their CCAA competitors. You have to know there is modicum of joy in the clubhouses around the conference seeing this perrenial power fall flat. To borrow a Vin Scully line, “it’s so quiet in Chico, you can hear the chuckles in San Diego.”  In conducting the post-mortem exam I will not be mentioning specific players by name. After-all, these are college kids. This 2015 Wildcat squad tried and for whatever reason it just didn’t happen for them. But, because of the nature of the program they decided to play in, they are held to the standard of their for-bearers, and for that we must lend a critical eye. Here is the post-mortem……*grabs my scalpel*

First, A lot was expected of Chico State’s returning players. Was this an unfair expectation ? No. This program is used to slowly incorporating junior college transfers during their junior years’ (first seasons) in the program and then having them perform at a high level in their senior seasons. This was SUPPOSED to be the year these seniors dominated. They didn’t. One can make the argument that only a hand-full of Chico State seniors lived up to expectations. Nearly a dozen other Chico State seniors performed so poorly that the Wildcats had no chance to compete for conference and regional glory. A good team can with-stand down years from a couple of their key players. When a team has 10-12 players perform so far below expectations they really have no chance to be competitive. These upper class-men didn’t hit, didn’t hit with runners in scoring position, and were inconsistent on the mound.

Second, the kids in the Chico State program played like kids. It’s always nice to see young freshman come into the Wildcat program and get playing time and play well. And, while there have been moments where these youngsters have shined, they lacked the consistency to really to overcome the mistakes of their older brethren. Head coach Dave Taylor wanted to slowly incorporate the freshman into the line-up, but mid-way through the season he was forced to depend on the freshman. The struggles of this senior class trickled down to the kids, where they had to produce or else. These young players would look good one moment, over-matched the next. The result was not necessarily unexpected. I think the young kids performed well, but its tough to use their performance this year as a template for their future seasons, based on how much they were needed this year.

Third, for the past 21 seasons the Chico State program has prided itself on being the most fundamental team on the West Coast. You don’t win 2 National Titles, 9 Regional Titles and make the playoffs practically every year if you aren’t a fundamentally sound program. The Wildcats attention to detail this year was very poor. The short-game, bunting, hitting and running, base-running, even picking up signs was not very good. Fundamentally this team did not execute. To make matters worse they either didn’t understand situational hitting or just couldn’t execute.

The Wildcats inability to hit a ground ball to second base with a runner at second and nobody out was painful to watch. Their lack of consistency in trying to get a runner home from third with less than two outs was mind-numbing. THESE “situations” are hall-marks of the Chico State program. It’s THESE “situations” that have led to national and regional titles. Chico State struggled all year executing in these crucial spots. This program will only go as far as their mental toughness takes them. This year, their toughness can certainly be questioned.

Mentally tough teams don’t get blitzed week in and week out on double-header days. Chico State was swept FIVE times  on CCAA double-header days. Three of those sweeps were at home. This tells me they couldn’t mentally engage into the game for long periods of time. It’s not easy to concentrate for six hours of baseball and being mentally ready. The good teams, the great teams can. Chico State couldn’t.

Fourth, aside from a few glowing performances the Wildcat pitching was average. The numbers prove that out. With a team ERA a tick above 4, the Cats were serviceable but not of championship quality. The starting rotation was inconsistent and the bullpen, aside from the closer, was a little above-average. As an observer I can tell you its hard to pitch when you know your team can’t score. Too many times this year the Wildcats hurlers took the mound knowing they couldn’t make any mistakes because the offense was so anemic.

Fifth, the offense. Well, there isn’t much to be said about this team offensively. The Wildcats had the  worst team batting average in the CCAA (.240) they were last in the conference in extra base hits and slugging percentage (.301.) They were second to last in runs and hits. Before the season started it looked like a line-up of punishing power hitters with a sprinkle of table-setters  that would punish opposing pitching. I believed this would be one of the best hitting teams in Chico State history. The line-up gave me no reason to doubt them coming into the 2015 campaign. Considering the line-up was filled with returners from last year’s World Series squad, it was a reasonable expectation. Nope.

The post-mortem is ugly but it also makes one appreciative of the program’s greatness through the years. Taylor told me two weeks ago the whole season has been “humbling.” He added that this was a system-wide meltdown and everyone, including himself,  takes responsibility. As for the future, well there is no doubt the Wildcats are on the recruiting trail. Chico State baseball needs an upgrade in talent. Those upgrades are needed at virtually every position. Honestly there are holes everywhere, outfield, infield, rotation and bullpen. The exciting thing is because of their resources, stadium and reputation, the Wildcats will be able to bring in some high quality players and re-load quickly. Talented ball-players who may have never thought of Chico as an option now know there is an APB on the interstate for their talents at Nettleton Stadium.

As for the returners, it’s real tough to say what the future holds. The Chico State program has never been sentimental. Can you help the school and program win games ? If you can you are welcome to stay to compete and try to win a job. If you can’t your services are no longer needed…PERIOD.  This program has had success because either Lindsay Meggs or Dave Taylor never had qualms about cutting the cord. Chico State Baseball fans and alumni have an expectation. That expectation is the foundation that Taylor has come to embrace. I sense he never wants to go through another year like this ever again. He is already working hard to ensure, he never has to.

The hard work is already under-way. Contacting future Wildcats, bringing them up for a visit, having them sign on the dotted line. As is always the case in the Chico State program fall ball will be vital. Players will come in the fall of 2015 and be able to win jobs and then look to etch their names in Chico State lore. Many of the out-going seniors were part of last year’s incredible ride to Cary and the 2014 Division-II World Series. They will take those memories and cherish them, and as fans we will cherish their contributions to the Chico State Baseball experience.

Personally I see 2015 as a year where nothing went right, a lot went wrong and the universe was telling Chico State Baseball, “it’s your turn.”

In the end I am thankful for the 2015 Chico State Baseball season. Yep, I said it, thankful. Thank you for reminding me that this game is hard. Success should be cherished and winning should NEVER EVER NEVER be taken for granted.

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