The road trip from hell is over and now the Chico State Wildcat baseball team can circle the wagons and get ready for the stretch run.
Going 3-3 on their most recent 96 hour two-city road trip was wicked difficult. The ramifications of rain-outs are usually taxing, more so when you are team that doesn’t live in an urban center. Chico State’s weekend travel included a flight to San Diego, a three game set against Cal State San Marcos on Saturday and Sunday. A delayed flight late Sunday night back to Sacramento which meant they didn’t get back into Chico until 3am.
Twelve hours later the Cats had to hop back on a bus and head to East Bay where they would finish a suspended game from March 4th (a loss) and then play the rescheduled double-header from a March 5th rain out (15-13 win; 10-9 extra inning loss).
Before you shed a tear for these Cats I do recognize these young men are playing baseball. I do get that. As head coach Dave Taylor told me during Tuesday’s pre-game from Cal State East Bay, “it’s not like we are digging ditches for a living, we’re playing baseball.” All true, but to perform at your highest level I am firm believer in physical rest and mental clarity. I believe the body’s biorhythms must be in sync. Young or not, the body and mind needs rest and these Wildcats didn’t get any last weekend and into Monday and Tuesday.
Chico State now sits at 23-9 overall and 13-7 in the CCAA. This year is far cry from the angst of the 2015 campaign. We are certainly thankful for the resurgence of this proud program. These 2016 Wildcats are one of the best hitting teams we have seen in Chico State history. They simply rake. One-through-nine in the order this group seeks out their pitch and when they get it, they haven’t been missing it. I rarely see hitters on this squad put themselves at a disadvantage by swinging at bad pitches early in the count. This team’s plate discipline is stellar. They seek out the mistake and then pounce. Amazing collective approach by these hitters. A week ago they surpassed the 2015 team’s runs total for the year. They did it in about roughly 25 fewer games.
As a team Chico State is hitting .335 on the year with an on-base percentage of .416. They are second in the conference in extra base hits (Monterey Bay is 1st) although the Otters batting average is nearly 40 points lower than the Cats. The offensive prowess of this team ranks with some of the great offensive teams we have seen here at Chico State, especially clubs we saw during the “live ball” era 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2006. Offensively this team is good enough to win a West Region title.
To be the team they want to be, and to reach the goals they want to reach the Wildcat pitching staff needs to ratchet it up a notch. While the Chico State arms rank second in team ERA for the season (3.64), their production during conference play has taken a huge dip (4.72)
Despite being away from the team for much of March, one problem that has persisted with this group is not throwing strike one. By not getting ahead in the count the Wildcat pitchers are putting themselves at a tremendous disadvantage. Both San Marcos and East Bay were two of the top three hitting teams in the CCAA. The Cats spent the entire four-day stretch falling behind these quality hitters. This is no way to live. And, it wasn’t just one or two guys, other than AJ Epstein’s five inning relief stint on Tuesday, not one Chico State hurler could consistently get ahead in the count.
Also, not one Wildcat starter went more than five innings. In the three game San Marcos series Wildcat starters went 14.2 innings and walked 11 hitters. For the entire 27 inning series Wildcat pitchers walked 19 Cougars. Not good.
While many may point to the struggles of Chico State’s bullpen, the starters need to shoulder a ton of the blame. Eventually a team and a pitching staff will have to pay the price for starters who constantly have deep counts, walk hitters and don’t go deep in contests. In this competitive conference a team can survive maybe one sub-par start a weekend. When they get three less than average starts, good luck. By the time Tuesday came around the Wildcat bullpen was spent. The Wildcat starters need to pitch deeper, when they don’t, it stretches the bullpen thin.
Was last weekend a blip on the screen, an aberration ? I do believe last weekend and into Tuesday were your atypical grouping of games. We all knew it would be tough against two of the better hitting teams in the conference and it was. The Wildcats are capable on the mound, but the time for talking about it is over. It’s time for the entire staff to take ownership of their performances. Five innings from the starters is not good enough. Average teams have starters that go five innings. Great teams have pitchers who get through seven. Throw strike one, get ahead in the count. quit nibbling. Attack the hitters, believe in your stuff.
It sounds simple, we know it’s not. This team can hit. They rank right up there with some of the more complete offensive teams to wear the Cardinal and White. Even with some pitching slippage at San Marcos and East Bay blowing 7-2 and 8-2 leads, this group of arms is certainly talented enough to get the Cats where they want to go. But, the time for toughness is now. No excuse making, no lamenting ones’ role. Every great Chico State team has faced that put up or shut up moment and that time is fast approaching. It’s time for this group to dig deep and show the toughness we believe they have.
*PHOTO COURTESY OF CHICO STATE ATHLETICS AT http://www.chicowildcats.com