Beyond Box Scores: Winning the Spartan way
By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – As Major League Baseball once taught us to say, everybody digs the long ball. So what, pray tell, might the befuddled masses think of these UNCG Spartans? Dig them? Sure. Dig them a hole and bury them for good.
That's what rock-em, sock-em robotic fandom might do with a team that has amassed three sacrifice bunts for every home run.
The Spartans have been out-hit and out-homered over the course of their 21 Southern Conference games. If the marketable version of baseball is a week on Las Vegas Boulevard, the Spartans are Saturday night at a bingo joint in Sheboygan.
And they're 14-7 and in second place in the league standings.
"If we get a guy on with one hit, we can get him in without getting another one," pitcher Warren Slack said.
This bunch's most obvious trait expresses an overall tendency to adapt to circumstance and subordinate the individual stuff if necessary. Somehow, it adds up to a team that is close to securing a SoCon tournament berth and seriously overcoming modest preseason predictions.
"Everybody's OK with doing his role, whether that role is small or big," said catcher and first baseman Trevor Edwards, a redshirt sophomore from Toronto.
If nothing else, the Spartans have co-opted the phrase "short game" from the golf course. They have delivered 36 sacrifice bunts in 21 league games, an average of 1.7 a contest. That's more than three times the per-game average of the 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers, who led Major League Baseball in that category by a comfortable margin.
This year, it's twice the national average and good for a fourth-place tie among the 292 teams in NCAA Division I play.
The sac bunt is way up across the college game this spring as teams adapt to the newly instituted bat, which is more tool than weapon. But the Spartans are extreme even by those altered standards.
"We've learned to bunt the ball well," coach Mike Gaski said, perhaps uttering words no college coach has used in decades. "We've learned to put stress on the other team. We have run the bases well. We go from first to third (on a common single.) We score when we're supposed to score."
Everybody has to learn such skills on a team that stands 233rd nationally in slugging percentage. Every Spartan regular, including Edwards, author of six of the club's 19 homers, has at least one sac bunt.
UNCG doesn't swipe a bunch of bases, but the club makes good decisions. The Spartans' 83.3-percent success rate (40-for-48) is tied for ninth in the land.
Being nimble is every bit as important as being quick, and the Spartan pitchers have discovered that. Gaski has asked all of his top four starters to modify the approach they take to working hitters. Warren Slack and Colby Hyatt still don't walk people – Hyatt has passed only six men in 67 innings – and Jarett Miller and Brandon Browne are still tough to hit, allowing a collective .223 batting average. In conjunction with pitching coach Jarrett Santos, a former Spartan, they've honed previously underutilized skill sets. (Santos, by the way, speaks with the credibility of a 42-31 record and 3.29 ERA for seven Florida Marlins farm teams over seven seasons – numbers that surpass the achievements of many current big leaguers.)
"We had two challenges, two different types of pitchers," Gaski said. "We have Warren and Hyatt, who can throw strikes with their eyes closed. They had to work to expand the zone and get guys out that way. Miller and Brandon, who have pro stuff, had to work the lower half of the zone a little more efficiently. As you learn to do that, you give up a few extra hits or you're not as efficient, but that's part of the growth process for college pitchers."
The staff, as a result, is one of the deepest in the SoCon, and that bodes well for the conference tournament, for which the Spartans will secure a bid with three wins in their final nine regular-season contests.
This statistically unlikely amalgamation of parts works because individuals can see that swinging for the fences or striving for 97 on the radar gun probably won't work over the long haul.
"This team has embraced the team of baseball," Edwards said. I've never been on a team like this where every person hangs out with everybody. There are no groups on the team. It's one unit and it's really showing in the way we're playing."
On paper, that chemistry thing doesn't look like a certainty, either. In addition to the normal contingent of North Carolinians, the roster has four guys from Florida, three from California, two from New York and one each from Arizona, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana and Ontario.
But instead of developing cliques, they've collectively clicked – perhaps because many have successful backgrounds.
• Shortstop Ray Quinones went to the same New York high school (George Washington) as Manny Ramirez, Rod Carew, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the developer of the nicotine patch.
• Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, Calif., has produced, among others, pilot Charles Lindbergh, actors Phil Hartman and Demi Moore, MLB All-Star Morgan Ensberg and current UNCG outfielder Bobby Martin.
• Jonathan Jones, a spot starter in the Spartan pitching rotation, went to Mc-Gill Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Ala., which also claims musician-author-entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett and former college football coach Vince Dooley.
Now what's dull about that? And, for that matter, what's dull about winning?
"One of the main characteristics," Edwards said, "is doing the job when the job needs to be done."
- UNCG -