VERO BEACH, FLA. – Coach Chris Olean knew St. Thomas would need a different approach at the plate against Grinnell College on Sunday because of a stiff wind blowing in from left field. After two days and three games where the Tommies averaged 15 runs and 17 hits a game, Olean told his players to “think small ball” and hit the ball hard on the ground as much as possible.
They responded as instructed and slapped 17 hits, including 13 singles, to pick up a pair of 6-1 wins and run their winning streak to eight games. The pitching staff held its own as well, with starters John Licht and Matt Nelson scattering nine hits to shut down the Pioneers in the doubleheader at historic Dodgertown.
Olean was particularly pleased with the second-game effort. After flying out seven times in the opener, the No. 1 Tommies (10-1) had only one such out in the nightcap.
“You made a fantastic adjustment,” Olean told his players afterwards. “We knew what the wind conditions were like. ‘Small ball’ was huge today. We showed that we could put together runs doing the little stuff right.”
The Tommies opened the first game with two first-inning runs and scored single runs in four of the next five innings. Designated hitter Drew Cremisino led the eight-single attack with three and leftfielder Tayler Rahm had two, backing the five-single, complete-game pitching of Licht in his first start of the year.
Licht gave up a single and a walk with two outs in both the third and fifth innings, and after the game Olean told the sophomore pitcher from Minneapolis Southwest that he needed “to bear down and get out of those one-batter funks.”
“It’s just a lack of mental toughness,” Licht said. “That will come with time. I get two quick outs and relax too much. I need to focus on that third guy. The big thing for me is to get a lot of ground-ball outs (he had 11).”
In the second game, St. Thomas banged out nine more hits, and four were shots into the right-center gap for triples by Rahm and shortstop Roy Larson and doubles by designated hitter John Means and first baseman Tom Wippler. The Tommies tallied single runs in the second and fifth innings and two each in the third and fourth.
Nelson, a senior southpaw from Benilde-St. Margaret, picked up his second win in three days. The first came in five innings of relief on Friday. On Sunday, in his first career start, Nelson induced the Pioneers to hit 12 fly balls to the outfield, with senior Matt Olson nabbing seven in right. Junior Kris Edwards pitched the last two innings and gave up the only Grinnell run in the seventh.
Two sterling defensive plays highlighted the fifth inning. Matt McQuillan proved again why he may be the best defensive centerfielder in the country with a diving backhanded catch in left-center. Grinnell followed up with two singles but catcher Brady Field alertly picked off a runner at first base, and the inning ended harmlessly with another fly ball to Olson.
St. Thomas returned to Winter Haven Sunday evening and will play a nine-inning game Monday against Edgewood College (6-3) of Madison in nearby Auburndale. The Tommies will travel to Fort Myers for an exhibition game vs. the Minnesota Twins’ rookie team on Tuesday.