Reason for optimism with Chico State baseball at 35 thousand feet

(pictured is Cody Snider after his solo blast at Minute Maid Park that gave Chico State a short-lived 2-1 lead on Sunday against Central Missouri)

Call me an eternal optimist but I am not discouraged even as the Chico State Wildcat baseball suffered a gut-wrenching loss on get-away day against 3rd-ranked Central Missouri at Houston’s Minute Maid Park on Sunday morning.

Chico was two outs away from victory before the game slid through their fingers in frustrating fashion resulting in a wild walk-off celebration for the tournament’s hosts.

Cody Snider’s laser down the right field line snuck inside the Chick-Fil-A foul pole, lighting up the Wildcat dugout and bringing the Cats to the brink of two-win weekend. But, the Baseball Gods disagreed.

You see when you don’t play the game the right way Mr. Baseball God doesn’t believe that should be rewarded. While Chico’s starting pitching and defense was absolutely stupendous all weekend, their pedestrian approach at the plate left a lot to be desired. Chico managed only two hits in a series opening loss to Texas A&M Kingsville on Friday afternoon, despite Hunter Haworth and the bullpen pitching very well.

On Saturday, the Wildcats were the beneficiaries of three St. Mary’s of Texas errors in the 3rd inning resulting in four runs. They also received two walks and those walks would come around and score in the 8th inning on wild pitches as the Cats would add to their lead, beating the Rattlers 6-3.

On Sunday, Chico State had numerous opportunities to put runs on the board and just couldn’t take advantage. Head Coach Dave Taylor was lamenting his team’s approach to situational baseball before the game and has more ammunition for mid-week teaching moment heading into CCAA play on Friday.

Chico was 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position on Sunday and 1-for-22 on the weekend. Yes, the Baseball Gods don’t like long swings in hitters counts with runners in scoring position and the Cats would pay the price as the Mules of Central Missouri would walk them off with a 3-2 win.

FIRST THE GOOD NEWS

Here is the good news. Front line starters Hunter Haworth, Casey Costello and Cam Greenough were lights out all weekend. Haworth pitched six shut-out innings on Friday, and even though he surrendered four earned runs in the 7th inning. His line was not indicative of how dominant he was 6.1 innings 6 hits 4 earned runs with 10 strikeouts.

Casey Costello tied up a good hitting team in St. Mary’s on Saturday pitching six shut-out innings, giving up only 5 hits and not allowing a run.

On Sunday Junior right-hander Cam Greenough was lights out. He pitched 7 shut-out innings giving up 6 hits and striking out seven. Taylor couldn’t have asked for more from a group that is expected to be the backbone of the Wildcats 2017 pitching staff.

The defense was tremendous all weekend. Whether it was acrobatic catches by Sonny Cortez in the spacious Minute Maid Park on Friday or diving and sliding catches by Cody Snider in right or Casey Henderson ranging deep in the holes at short the Cats flashed the leather only committing one error all weekend and now have only had three miscues through their first 11 games. Defense will win a lot of games for the Wildcats this year.

Staring pitching and defense, the elements which are the back-bone of the Wildcat program, and they appear to be in fine shape again this year.

THINGS TO FINE-TUNE 

I am encouraged about the 2017 Chico State Wildcats because I saw this team “rake” all season last year. I saw them devour mediocre pitching and even find a great bit of success against some of the CCAA’s best. This 2017 has returnees up and down their line-up and I simply don’t think their struggles at Minute Maid will continue. There are too many good, veteran hitters who have experience and know what it takes to win.

Talking about it and executing are two distinct things but I feel very confident that we will not see a Wildcat team go three days and manage only 1 hit with a runner in scoring position the rest of the year. Ironically the hit was a bunt, that was meant as a sacrifice by Andru Cardenas on Saturday, but the St. Mary’s second baseman forgot to cover first base. Cardenas was given a hit. The only knock with the runner in scoring position all weekend.

I really like the “stuff” coming out of the Wildcat bullpen. This weekend they did scuffle a bit. Both Andrew Schantz and Jae Wagner walked lead-off men in the 8th and 9th innings to allow Central Missouri to get lead-off men on. Those walks directly led to Mules runs. This Cats group is expected to be strike-throwers and that was lacking at critical times this weekend. That will get better and in turn Chico will be able to nail down these tight games late.

While I sit on this team flight home with a bunch of ball players who reveled in the experience of playing at Minute Maid Park, they also know they left a win or two in Houston. They fell to a couple of really good teams in tight contests. They lost games where the little things mattered and Chico State didn’t do them. The early season problems are fixable. The starting pitching and defense is fantastic, overwhelmingly dominant at times. Chico isn’t hitting now. They will figure it out. And, when they do, look out.

*Photo courtesy of Skip Reager with Chico State Athletics http://www.chicowildcats.com

Thoughts on the Chico State Wildcat Men from 35 thousand feet

*Here are some thoughts on the plight of the Chico State Wildcat men’s basketball team from 35 thousand feet as I fly to Houston with the Chico State baseball team to Houston*

The news emerging from the Division West Region NCAA Men’s Basketball committee on Wednesday afternoon had to send a jolt of energy to the Chico State men’s basketball team.

The first regional ranking has the Wildcats sitting at number five in the West Region with the top eight teams going to the NCAA Tournament in three weeks.

The news had to be thrilling for a Wildcats team that has dropped three in a row and four of their last six. With losses over the last 11 days to Sonoma, San Francisco State and Cal State San Marcos the Wildcats were left to wonder whether their early season success would be over-looked, but as we like to emphasize, your post-season fate rests on your body of work and not entirely on “what have you done lately?”

For a team that was averaging nearly 78 points a game, the Wildcat offense has come to a stand-still during their skid. During the recent downturn it’s not as if the Cats are playing a bunch of also-rans. Sonoma State has the best Division II defense in the country and their match-up zone that put the clamps on Chico is “hell on wheels.” The Seawolves held Chico to a season-low 50 points in a 16-point win.

San Francisco State has interior size, perimeter athleticism and followed their game-plan perfectly in holding Chico to 51 points 10 days ago. The biggest surprise in the down-turn was Chico’s sub-par performance against the Cougars of San Marcos. At Acker Gym and after a great week of practice the Wildcats were held to 58 points in a heart-breaking loss against a team they put 80 points on in early December. It was Chico’s first loss at home in 13 games this year.

It is no surprise what is giving Chico State trouble right now. The match-up zone. The offense was cruising until Greg Kamanksy’s Cal Poly Pomona Broncos put the clamps on Chico’s offense in late January at Kellogg Gym. After the game Kamansky told me, “that’s best our zone has been all year.” Well, the rest of the CCAA has taken notice and employed their different versions of a defense that has suddenly put the skids on the free-flowing, ball is a blur Chico State offense.

The Wildcats have been known to carve up the zone, but inexplicably their flow has come to a stand-still against the zone over the last several weeks. Chico State head coach detests when the ball “sticks” in a players hands. By “sticking” he means when the ball is held by the offensive player, player just holds it as movement and cohesive play stops. There has been too much sticking. Too many times yours truly says, (Chico State player) is “surveying the scene.” When Chico attacks the teeth of the zone, they are either driving right into the heart of a double or triple team, make an ill-advised pass or take a bad shot. The synchronicity of the Wildcat offense is dis-jointed and has frustrated them as a group.

Clink was at wit’s end after last Saturday’s loss calling his teams’ offense “putrid.”

There is a silver lining to this slide. Last year the Wildcats lost steam after a 22-3 start and capturing their second straight CCAA title and could not recapture the magic dropping their final three games of the season including their NCAA Tournament opener against UC San Diego. Almost the entire squad that saw their season end so unceremoniously last year is on this squad and they will do whatever they need to do to prevent a repeat of last year.

Coming into the season the professed goal of many of the Wildcats I spoke with was not winning a 3rd straight CCAA title, but it was to go into the post-season playing their best basketball. With two weeks left in the regular season the regular season CCAA title may have come and gone, but the hopes of playing their best basketball still sits there like the ultimate carrot on a rope.

This team is too good and too veteran to let this little down-turn define their season. It will take more than talking about how good they are though. This team has to come together, maybe have some tough internal conversations, look themselves in the mirror and figure out what kind of team they want to be. I know they can do it, their rabid supporters know they can do it. Now we wait for them to figure it out.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Wildcats at http://www.chicowildcats.com