Close Calls
Coach White and company have adjusted to the youth movement of the Rams baseball team...

Close Calls

March 24, 2011 | RSS

Brian Woodson

Bluefield Daily Telegraph


BLUEFIELD, Va. — Since Mike White arrived as the baseball coach at Bluefield College, the Rams have shown a steady pattern of improvement, going from 12 wins in 2006 to 41 last year.



The 2011 Rams are really a team of fresh faces after losing alot of the 2010 team.

Improving on those numbers will be difficult this season.


Not because of effort, but even the New York Yankees would have a hard time replacing a collection of six senior sluggers and bullpen stopper Donald Howell, who was 4-1 with a 1.87 earned run average and 14 saves last season.


"It's been a little bit of an adjustment period for us," said White, in his sixth season at Bluefield, having previously been an assistant at Virginia-Wise. "Any time you lose six or seven kids the caliber of what they were and then play the schedule that we have played, it has been challenging for us."


It shows in the record. Bluefield is 8-16 on the season, including 1-5 in the Appalachian Athletic Conference. Still, don't count out the Rams when the AAC and National Christian College Athletic Association tournament rolls around.


"We have got to make some adjustments and I think things will be OK," White said. "It's just a matter of getting out and playing every day. We're getting better every day."


Trying to put the "big three" of baseball together has been the issue for the Rams, who are 4-13 in games decided by three runs or less, and 1-7 in one-run games, including 1-2 in 1-0 decisions.


Pitching, with an earned run average around 4.00, hasn't been an issue, but hitting definitely has been. In reality, White said to simply "pick something" when asked why there have been problems in close games.


"It's putting the three things together, you have got to pitch it, you have got to hit it and you have got to catch it," White said. "It seems like in those one-run losses, we have done two of the three, but it is the third one that ends up biting us.


"Where we either didn't throw it great that day or we kick a ball defensively or we just didn't get a hit we needed at the time we needed it. With these new bats, it is a little bit different."


In recent seasons, Bluefield has been known to score lots of runs. That has changed this year, with the Rams having scored five or more runs in just nine games.


Part of the issue is losing such talented players as leadoff batter Devin Good, catcher K.J. Sobolewski, infielders Jeremiah McMillian, Tony Singleton and Billy Funk and outfielder Ryan Lambert.


"(That is) tough to lose and tough to replace," White said. "We have been pretty fortunate. We have bounced around some lineups right now.


"Any time you lose kids the caliber they were, it is tough to go out and find somebody to jump right in and feel the slot."


The other culprit could simply be the bats. College baseball at all levels has changed from the typical aluminum bats to a "bbcore-50", which has caused a definite change in the way the game is being played.


"I would call it a souped-up wooden bat, it's not going to break and it is just a little bit better than wood," White said. "The ball reacts very similar coming off of it and a lot of our kids just haven't had the experience of having to square the ball up with a smaller sweet spot.


"They were concerned about the safety and the exit speed and the ball going through the infield. They will go, if you square it up, it is still going to go, but you have a lesser room for error than you have had in the past."


That will require more of an emphasis on pitching and defense, and less on simply bashing the baseball. White added that teams might have to steal bases and bunt more than they have in the past.


"You have got to do three things well, the days of just going out and finding big kids that are just going to hit it, you can't hide the weaknesses," White said. "Used to, if you swung the bat real well, you could maybe get by with two of the three, now you can't do that.


"You have got to have all three facets of the game in order to be successful."


That starts with pitching. Bluefield has that, led by returning ace David Gibson, a southpaw, who was 13-3 last season. Adam Hoyt, who was 8-5 last year, is second in line, but the Rams are still seeking a third starter for the all-important weekend three-game AAC series.


"We will run a lot of our younger guys out there behind those two," White said. "It will be interesting to see, we have really not been able to identify that third starter yet and that is an issue."


Among the choices are Chastin Akers, a product of Narrows and a transfer from Concord, along with Eli Smurfwaite, Joey Andrews or Ethan Lewis. Smurfwaite is a transfer from Olivet Nazarene, who has pitched against the Rams in the NCCAA World Series in recent seasons.


Replacing Howell as the Rams' closer is senior Adam McQuade, who pitched last summer with the West Virginia Miners' Prospect League team in Beckley.


Three returnees are back in the field, including the double play brother-duo of shortstop Travis Weaver and second baseman Andrew Weaver, along with first baseman Zac Goodyear.


Replacing Sobolewski — the first recruit White brought to Bluefield —behind the plate are Cameron Hynes and Andrew Dickerson, while Smurfwaite will play third base. Kyle Cabral is filling Good's shoes in center field, while Joe Gatewood, Victor Torres and Jon Michaal Thruett will play the corner outfield slots or as designated hitters.


"That are a lot of new names and it may take us a little while to mesh them together, but the thing I like about them is they have played hard since day one," White said. "That is the biggest thing you can ask from them, they are going to come out and compete every day and that has been a good thing to see."


While Bluefield has finished among the top three teams in the AAC over the last two seasons, the Rams are currently tied for seventh. White understands there is still plenty of baseball left to play.


"We're off a slower start than we would have liked, but I think the league is so balanced, it might go awhile to define the top eight or how it all plays out," White said. "It will make for an interesting year.


"You've got to do those three things and you have got to play. Baseball is just a game of math when you think about it, add and subtract.


"We have just got to be able to go out and put the three things together and as long as they work hard every day I think those things are going to happen for them."


Since White arrived in Bluefield six years ago, the Rams have progressed each season, from 12-27, to 27-23, 33-19, 39-14 and 41-16. They won the NCCAA College World Series in 2009, and finished second to North Greenville by a run last season.


He credits the administration's commitment to the program, and the players, including such talented performers as Jon Link, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Brandon Holloway, who is in the Baltimore Orioles' system.


"We have been pretty lucky, hopefully that ain't the last of them," White said. "For us to be competitive in the league we're going into, we have got to have those type kids come in and help us out."


Bluefield will play next season in the AAC, and then move to the Mid-South Conference in 2012-2013. No matter what league they're in, White will approach each campaign the same.


"We have got the group of upperclassmen that we have been here and been through it so it is the same philosophy we have had since I got here," White said. "Let's go out and work hard and if we do things the right way then we will take whatever comes our way on the scoreboard.


"We really don't measure it in wins and losses at the end as long as we are working hard and trying to do things the right way. We have been blessed that those things have been taken care of for us. I think the same thing will happen with this group."