ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ANDREW OTTOSON
Tabor College baseball coach John Sparks has a whole different animal to work with this year. His 2007 team will have a markedly different look and feel than the roster of a year ago that set single-season team marks for home runs and runs batted in.
“We set a number of offensive records the previous couple of years,” Sparks said. “We lost a number of guys to graduation who were primary to that. We’re a lot different team than we have been.”
But being different might not be a such a bad thing.
“I really like our team this year,” Sparks said. “We’re playing better defensively than we have in recent years.
“We have more team speed than we’ve had while I’ve been here,” he added. “It’s helped us out quite a bit offensively, on the basepaths. We don’t have as much power at the plate as we’ve had, so we’re hoping to execute and use our speed to produce runs.”
The Bluejays have gotten off to a fast start with a 7-6 non-conference record. The starting lineup changes daily, as the team platoons players at multiple positions.
At catcher, Tabor will turn to Chris Huston and Chris Brown.
“We’ve been blessed with some depth at catcher,” Sparks said. “Chris Huston played at Fresno State two years ago. He’s a gifted athlete, a Division I athlete. He’s off to a slow start, but we expect big things from him offensively and he does a good job behind the plate.”
Brown will help stabilize the position for the Bluejays.
“(Brown) is solid, steady and not real flashy,” Sparks said. “You always know what to expect from him.”
At first base, the Bluejays turn to Tyson Bauerle and Roger Schroeder.
“(Bauerle) is one of our seniors-a solid, solid first-baseman defensively and a guy we expect to drive in runs,” Sparks said. “Schroeder has probably been our most consistent bat up to this point so far.”
Senior all-conference pick JD Poplin sets up at second base, and sophomore shortstop Jordan Lago, a second-baseman at Solano Community College, has moved over to shortstop.
“He’s done a good job making the transition,” Sparks said.
Third base is one position the Bluejays will play by committee, at least temporarily.
“Tyler Sizemore-our starting guy there-seperated his shoulder on Saturday,” Sparks said. “He’s out for a couple weeks, so it’s a little bit of everybody over there.”
The corner outfield spots will also showcase multiple players: sophomores Justin Cooper, Eric LiCalsi, Alfred Wilson and freshman Bryan Kellogg.
“We rotate guys in and out at those spots,” Sparks said.
But center field will be patroled by Errol Bailey. “(Bailey) brings a lot of speed to the middle of the outfield. We haven’t had that since I’ve been here, so that’s exciting.”
Thus far, Bailey has also had a hot bat. He has scored 13 runs and driven in 17 on 16 hits so far.
If Bailey has been hot, Schroeder has been sizzling. Through 13 games, Schroeder leads the team with 19 hits in 42 at-bats (.452). Schroeder has scored 15 runs to go with 19 RBI and three home runs.
Consistent offensive production will be a key ingredient in the Bluejays’ success this year.
“Our pitching hasn’t been overpowering by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve been able to keep our team in games,” Sparks said.
At the top the rotation are Tyler McKim and Mike Menges. Phil Unruh of Peabody is the third man in the rotation.
Sparks will hand the ball to Nick Villalovos and Brad Yoder in relief. Alfred Wilson picked up a win on Feb. 28 despite spraining his elbow.
“He’ll be out a couple weeks,” Sparks said. “He can still hit, so we’ll use him in some situations, but he can’t throw right now.”
According to Sparks, the team has slightly different goals for each phase of the season.
“In the non-conference portion of the schedule, our primary goal is to get better each week,” he said. “We’re 7-6 right now, but we’re not overly concerned about our non-conference record. We’re more concerned about whether we’re improving as a team.”
But as the season transitions into conference play, the games gain importance.
“Our conference has three automatic bids to the regional tournament-if you finish first or second in the regular season, or if you win the conference tournament,” Sparks said.
“So when we get into the conference season, our goal is to get into that regional tournament.”
This edition of the Bluejays also grasps intangibles that do not necessarily show up in a box score.
“Out of the teams I’ve had, I’ve probably enjoyed this team the most,” Sparks said. “The guys have done very well in the classroom and I think we’ve really been cohesive as a team.”