Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- An edge. That’s what it took.
That’s what it took for the UMHB baseball team to earn just its second conference series win of the season on Friday against Hardin-Simmmons.
That’s what it took for the Crusaders to find a rhythm, both at the plate and on the mound, that led to wins of 14-1 and 6-1.
That’s what it took for the visitors from Belton to prove to themselves that they are as much in the hunt for a spot in the ASC Tournament as anyone else in this league.
“We played with an edge, the whole time,” UMHB head coach Mike Stawski said Friday evening. “We had the mentality of some hard-nosed, blue-collar baseball. We just haven’t seen much of it.”
The 0-4 start to the season gave way to 3-9 mark in ASC play by the time April began. Sitting in last place in the league standings, the mentality seemed to shift in a 4-3 upset of No. 24 Trinity (TX) on March 28 in a non-conference matchup. A week later, the Cru handed Southwestern a 3-2 loss, a notable result against a team that was 20-4 coming in.
Yet, the question remained: would the Cru keep the momentum going, and enter the weekend conference series–the set of games that really mattered–with the same sense of fearlessness?
The answer came swiftly on Thursday night. Three freshmen pitchers combined to allow just one run, and by the time the ninth inning began in Abilene, UMHB led 7-1. But the Crusaders were not even halfway done at the plate. Stawski’s squad tacked on seven more runs in the final frame en route to a 14-1 victory that left little doubt as to who was the better team.
“It’s great to see that fight,” Stawski said. “When you’re a team that’s trying to claw its way from the bottom, it can be very easy to just lay down and not keep fighting. But our guys just kept adding more on.”
The same sort of fight, even with a multi-run lead intact, came in the final game of the series on Friday night. Nicklas Fenner, firing on all cylinders in relief, was likely to have little trouble retiring the side in the bottom half of the ninth. UMHB led 3-1. But a trio of hits and a pair of errors led to three more runs for the Cru.
“We had Nicklas [Fenner] on the mound in that game and he was doing a good job,” Stawski added. “We were up by three and it’s like, ‘That’s enough. We don’t need anymore. Let’s just get through this top of the ninth, then he’ll go out there, get three outs and we’ll go home.’ Our guys were like, ‘No, let’s go tack on a bunch more.’ I give them all that credit. Hopefully we can continue to see that.”
Fenner’s solid pitching provided just one example of what ended up being a very strong pitching performance from the Cru over the course of the three-game series. In fact, since the 4-3 win at Trinity (TX), the pitching has been on point. Considering Stawski is the primary pitching coach on the staff,
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Stawski said postgame. “We’re trying to do the simple things right on the mound. The motto on our staff is, ‘Be good when good is good enough.’ Don’t try to be great when a good pitch will get the guy out.”
Stawski expanded on that mentality as the conversation went on.
“When a good fastball inside is going to get the guy out, don’t try to throw a great one. Because you don’t need a great one. You just need a good one. Then sometimes guys will overthrow or leave it over the middle of the plate because they try to do too much. If you just throw a good one, it’ll get the batter out. Our guys have really figured that idea out. It’s worked.”
The Crusaders have allowed seven runs over the last 17 games, and that is against successful offensive squads like LeTourneau, who ranks third in the ASC in runs scored this season. The team ERA is down to 5.52, and Fenner’s ERA of 2.93 now ranks fourth in the league. That is a far cry from the 4.11 ERA he carried entering the win at Trinity two weeks ago.
Bryce Farlander has been even better. The freshman starter from Plano went seven innings with just three hits and a run allowed in Friday night’s win, moving him to No. 3 on the ASC leaderboard in individual ERA, at 2.77. Few would believe that number ballooned to 4.50 following a trio of losses at ETBU.
“They’re competing even when they’re behind,” Stawski noted. “Even if it’s a 2-1 [count], they make pitches that keep them in the at-bat. That’s been the biggest thing, to try and continue to throw ‘out’ pitches.
“Rather than going, ‘Well, it’s 2-1 and I fell behind. I’m just going to give him something to hit and hope he doesn’t hit it very far,’ it’s like, ‘I’m not giving in to this kid. I’m going to make a good quality pitch and he’s going to have to work hard to get to me.’”
UT-Dallas is next on the conference schedule, followed by a rematch with Southwestern in nearby Georgetown. The last game the Pirates–who average 7.8 runs per game–played, was last Tuesday’s 3-2 loss in Belton. So it goes without saying there will be an added intensity in this week’s non-conference duel between the two.
And UTD ranks third in the league in batting average, and second in both hits and runs scored. The pitching staff will be tested once again.
“Hitters are not settling in on us,” Stawski noted. “There’s no ‘hitter’s count’ against our pitching staff right now. That’s why we’re excited moving forwards for the next three or four weeks if our guys continue throwing this way.”