By Alexander Haynes
After a scrappy start to the season, the Texas State Bobcats have turned around in the month of March, sweeping Stephen F. Austin, then putting together arguably their most fundamental offensive performance in a 6-2 victory against the Rice Owls on Tuesday night. The reason behind the four-game streak is not an anomaly; the veterans have found their batting identity while the pitching staff is cleaning up tumultuous situations for one another. Each member is doing their part to structure pointed at-bats and pitching strategy. Yes, the runs have been overtly built on the mistakes of opposing pitches, but by and large, winning in baseball on an average basis is not about dominating with purity night in and out. The Bobcats have been the cleaner team, as 18 of the 32 runs over the winning streak have been created by runners who arrived on base due to either a walk, error or hit by pitch.
The Gauchos Roster
The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos will be looking to increase their own viability at home. The most profound stand out point on the Gauchos is their homerun factor. A season after netting 50 homeruns, they have hit two through a 4-7 record. The power and slugging percentage which verbosely carried their wins last season has quietly disappeared along with the disappearance of any seniors and the veteran pop of the bat.
Their most successful batter thus far has been Clay Fisher (a redshirt junior for what it’s worth), hoisting a .728 OPS through 49 at-bats. Just as with most of the roster, he thrives on stringing together hits (team-leading 19) to produce RBIs. He joins Tommy Jew with three stolen bases. Jew, by contrasts has only 11 hits, getting on base with eight walks. Despite those walks, plate-discipline is a misnomer; he has 15 strikeouts, which may dictate that his .360 OBP will dip.
Youth often begets ups and downs as streakiness might be the Gaucho’s best descriptor. Their hope is players will bound when others regress to maintain balance. Even RBI leader Andrew Martinez (eight RBIs) is a freshman who has an equal eight hits; three of those RBIs came in a single swing as he owns one of two team home runs.
Finding the key to their wins, has in fact, been behind the bat of Fisher. When he leads off and dictates confidence, younger bats follow. The problem has been getting on base in the first place, not scoring the runners once on base. Thus, Thomas Rowan (.727 OPS), Armani Smith (.535 OPS)and Michael McAdoo (.652 OPS) netting that one successful hit after a player gets on base is of the utmost importance. This is a team that does not have substantial power, and instead relies on the precious simplicity of the single.
The onus on singles epitomizes the practice of pitching keeping games in control, again with Chris Clements and Alex Patterson as the two sole redshirt juniors.
Clements has started two games, with a 1-1 record and an additional save. He might be the most stable pitching profile at an ERA of 3.18 supported with 11 strikeouts and five walks. While he has allowed 12 hits, he cleans up the in-field. His first start was a dismal 2.2 inning, four run outing; the second saw 5.2 innings, and his save saw three innings. Clements is best when given time to control pace, at his worst when power punctures him early.
Patterson is the key bull pen arm; in 9.1 innings he has allowed eight hits, but maintains 11 strikeouts and a quaint 3.86 ERA. He has the most game appearances with seven, at his best when he can pitch with direct power. Despite earning the loss at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, he flamed down five batters with strikeouts before errors allowed the proverbial, heart-ripping winning run.
Luke Andrews (modest efficiency) and redshirt freshman Jack Dashwood (striking prospect) are the other two starters in heavy use. Andrews may not have the gaudy numbers (only six strikeouts), but has a low 1.69 ERA in 10.2 inning pitches. He is by far the most proficient pitcher, forcing ground outs and fly outs. Dashwood is the proverbial prospect who needs to see his innings limited. Although he has the most (14.2), he provides opportunities for hits, and once the going gets bad, it gets bad. He does not yet have the veteran presence to control bleeding. Ben Brecht is another young pitcher with an intriguing persona; he has 20 strikeouts and five walks, but again, allows hits to turn into runs.
The matchup against the Gauchos will be simplicity dependent; a game determined by the box score digits in the hits category. Considering that the Bobcats have been dependent upon turning mistakes, they cannot assume that the Gauchos will feed them the same errors. While walks have been (and should be) an important part to getting players on base to score, the Gauchos pitching staff does not have a high-walk rate, instead pitching to the strike zone.
Two factors will be tested then. First, plate discipline and walks have been an identity the Bobcats have tempted. To this point, determine if they are a team who receives walks or creates walks is difficult. This series will reveal that expectation for the rest of the season. The second factor then is finding a player who can be versatile in assuming walks or hits. Jacob Almendarez began the season by being a consistent place hitter but has since cooled to a .297 batting average. Just as in the win against Rice on Tuesday, seeing him place hits to turn RBIs will be important for the team to succeed as a unit.
Jonathan Ortega might be the most potentiated, versatile batter on the team. However, he has only 11 hits with a lack of power for his attempts to go deep. Seven walks have been a positive, but considering his spot in the batting lineup, when Ortega negates plate discipline later in games to swing, results have been less than respectable.
Dylan Paul, Derek Scheible and Luke Sherley are the essential pieces. When they string together hits, the rest of the batting lineup typically follows. The Gauchos lineup falls apart at the sight of power hitting, and Scheible personifies with a .550 SLG, two homeruns and 11 RBIs. Paul has been even more frustrating for opponents with a .605 SLG and 26 hits, but only three walks on the season. Sherley has only 14 hits on the season, but with 10 walks and six strikeouts is the veteran most likely to cause dissonance within opposing pitchers.
All things, the batting lineup has been finding their ideological picture with the above statistical lines. If these are the batters the Bobcats have at their disposal the remnant of the season, winning will be a team effort foremost. Patterns more than singular statistical lines paint success.
The team effort extends to the pitching unit. Recall the Bobcats goal is to score near or keep teams below the average of six runs. Nicholas Fraze is the pitcher has been able to adjust to several types of lineups but may see another outing of over 100 pitches. Fraze will force outs, but it may take an average of four pitches per at-bat as he aims for a seven-inning outing featuring fly-outs and ground-outs. Connor Reich has been approaching the game with a very similar modus operandi.
The downside to the Bobcats pitching staff has been the unabbreviated style of Brandon Lewis and bull pen arms, Broce Bosse, Zachary Leigh and Brayden Theriot. Lewis has been unable to control the zone, often erratically hitting batters or allowing walks. This Sunday may provide a chance for Lewis to pitch more toward the zone as the Gauchos do not intrinsically create power. Leigh, Bosse and Theriot have been getting the job done, but at the overwhelming risk of letting opposing batters taunt the inning. The bull pen has maintained success despite dancing with their pitches.
Whether the lack of brevity is a factor of who they are, or early season poetry remains to be seen. What is known; against the Gauchos they need to limit the opportunity the top of the lineup sees and add a bite to the pitch. In summation, the bite to the pitch will dictate this game as ferocity in approach can set the tone today.
Featured image by Nicole Wolf.