Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
HOUSTON- When the 2023 UMHB baseball season is reflected upon, a non-conference road win in mid-March likely will not be the first thing that jumps out. But it might just be the turning point necessary for Mike Stawski and his squad to overcome a miserable 1-8 start.
“We needed this game,” Stawski said postgame.
The Crusaders had dropped their last four games entering Tuesday night’s 6-1 victory over St. Thomas (TX), but under the lights of Constellation Field in Sugar Land, the struggles of the previous four weeks seemed irrelevant.
“For us to get on the road for a midweek during spring break after a four-game losing streak,” Stawski said, “and to be able to come out and put together a good top of the first and let our pitchers do what they do, it set the tone.”
Against a team that was 10-6 overall, UMHB pounded out three hits in the first inning, and along with two walks, pushed three runs across. Tyler Betts scored within the game’s first three batters, leading off with a single, taking second base on a passed ball, and then scored on Hunter Jones’ RBI base hit. UMHB led 2-0 before UST tallied a single out.
“You felt it in our dugout,” Stawski said. “We felt in control and confident that we had that game, basically from the first pitch on.”
The pitching played no small role. So much of Tuesday night’s game for this reporter was seen through the lens of past contests, contests like the series finale two weeks ago against Howard Payne in Belton. UMHB entered the sixth inning up 4-0, but allowed nine runs over the next two frames and lost 9-5. That was far from the case Tuesday night.
UST scored its only run in the sixth inning on an RBI single to left field, but other than that, it proved to be a mostly “lights-out” performance on the mound for UMHB’s five pitchers. Andrew Acierni picked up his first win of the season, starting off with a scoreless first inning, and James McGlumphy, who threw two innings, struck out five. The Cru carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and held the Celts to just five hits on the day.
“It was great to see those guys pitch with some energy and pitch with some grit,” Stawski said of his pitchers. “They haven’t had a chance to, honestly. While we’ve been in some close games, we’ve been behind. Sometimes it’s hard when you get down a couple runs early. I know the scoreboard says you’re down 3-0, but there were times when that felt like 10 runs.”
That seemed to be the case the Crusaders found themselves in more times than not over the first few weeks, with an 11-5 victory over HPU on March 3 being their lone win since the Feb. 19 season opener at Concordia (TX). It certainly was not a position they expected to be in.
“Last season we had such a great year. We brought back seven offensive starters and basically our entire pitching staff. And had Andrew Acierni back into the mix, plus a few freshmen. We thought, ‘We’re ready to take the next step.’ We just haven’t. It’s no fault of anyone’s. Guys just haven’t gotten kickstarted yet.”
Yet another reason for the significance of Tuesday’s win. While losing eight of the first nine is not ideal or enjoyable, the baseball season is lengthy. 28 games remain on UMHB’s schedule following the victory in Houston, the majority of which are ever-important conference matchups.
So in the midst of the struggles, Stawski and his staff took charge, meeting several times a day. The players had their own team meeting within the last week, and took finding an answer to the tough start seriously.
“I’ll be honest, we were trying everything,” Stawski said. “We were in coaches meetings two or three times a day, just trying to figure out what the right combination was and making sure we were doing everything we could to help the guys. We’re not used to this. It was a weird position to be in.
“There was no, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ It was, ‘Let’s try this’ and if it didn’t work in practice or during a game, we would try something different. But the one thing we never stopped doing was coaching. We never stopped preparing the guys to be successful in the games.”
A full week off between last Tuesday’s doubleheader at Our Lady of the Lake and Tuesday’s game gave the coaching staff that opportunity. With time between games, more attention could be put towards the development and improvement of the team. It also provided for a much needed reset, though it was not planned that way.
“I think the break helped,” Stawski noted.”It allowed the coaches to see the team from a different angle and put together a little bit of a different game plan. It allowed us [as coaches] to get ourselves in a better headspace too, to reposition ourselves to coach these guys and do the right thing for them.
“I didn’t plan for a week off in the middle of the season based on the thought that we might have a tough start, but it just happened that way. We took advantage of it.”
The next test comes in an ASC road series at McMurry, who is 6-9 overall, with a three-game winning streak. The obvious hope is that the same team that showed up in Houston Tuesday night will be present in Abilene for Friday’s series opener.
“I said it to the team tonight, ‘Look at the team that left San Antionio last week and look at the tesam that is leaving Houston this week.’ We are two different teams.”
And not only that, but the players themselves have taken charge.
“If you have a team full of people who are panicking, you can get in trouble in a hurry,” Stawski added. “We have enough seasoned guys who understand the process and journey of it all. [The team] can hear from us all day long, but when they hear it from their teammates, peers, and friends, it comes off a little better. I’m proud of them for being able to handle what we’ve done so far and keep looking forward.”