April 1: A "Good" Trip

Tommies take Florida lessons into MIAC season

Viewing the St. Thomas baseball team’s trip to Florida strictly from a wins and losses perspective, the outcome couldn’t have been much better. The Tommies had an 8-0 record against NCAA Division III opponents and gave a Minnesota Twins rookie team a spirited fight until falling 10-7.

St. Thomas (13-1) outscored its college-level opponents 88-18, outhit them 110-46, gave up only 13 earned runs and committed only 11 errors in remaining the No. 1 team in the country in polls by d3baseball.com and a coaches association.

Coach Chris Olean called it a “good” trip and broke down his team’s performance in the following manner: “outstanding” defense, especially in the outfield, “nice job” at the plate and “solid” pitching. He also liked the way the Tommies manufactured runs by scratching out infield hits, executing sacrifice bunts (11) and stealing bases (15).

“We’re a very solid team,” he said. “We’re better than we thought we were. We showed depth in places we didn’t have (last year).”

Olean was hoping for a tougher Florida schedule, and his concerns were validated early when the Tommies crushed Lawrence 17-1 and swept Chicago 13-5 and 14-3. Grinnell offered stiffer competition but couldn’t handle the Tommie pitchers and dropped a pair of 6-1 games. Edgewood fell 8-1 and 7-4, and on the final day Purchase went down 17-2.

The coach found much more value in the trip than just the wins and the gaudy statistics.

“No 1 is building team camaraderie,” he said. “You get to understand the personalities of these kids. We get into our daily reps (repetitions), and the trip tests our depth. The guys at the end of the roster get a chance to play and perform. We hope to carry our hot streak back home and into the conference season.”

Olean singled out the play of several Tommies:

• He knew all along he had two of the nation’s best defensive outfielders in Matt McQuillan (center) and Matt Olson (right), and they had no errors on the trip. McQuillan made several outstanding plays, including a catch when he chased a Grinnell ball into deep left-center, dove and snared it with his backhand. “Our human safety blanket,” assistant coach Matt Vanderbosch called McQuillan at one point during the week.

• Shortstop Roy Larson and leftfielder Tayler Rahm showed a lot of pop in their bats, each hitting a homerun and leading the team in RBIs. First baseman Tom Wippler had several multi-hit games.

• McQuillan and Olson, batting first and second, always seemed to find a way to get on base and were creative in advancing into scoring position. Example: Olson singled with one out in the fifth inning of the first Grinnell game, stole second and third and scored on a sacrifice fly. Had he not stolen the bases, he would have been stranded. Another example: McQuillan reached base six times on Thursday, including four hits, and Olson also was perfect at the plate, with three hits.

• Olson, the Most Outstanding Player of the national tournament last May, had an “up and down” trip, Olean said, but he isn’t worried. “Matt’s streaky. He’ll be fine.” He proved that in the first two games, going 0-for-5 with a walk against Lawrence but bouncing back in the Chicago opener with a single, double, hit-by-pitch and two walks in five plate appearances.

The trip was a learning experience not only for the players, but also for Olean, who said he gained “a little bit of confidence” by coaching so many games in a short period of time.

“You know what to do, but until you’ve done it you haven’t done it,” he said. “That sounds like a Yogiism, but it’s true.”

Most if not all baseball observers consider the Tommies the favorite to win their eighth straight MIAC title, but Olean isn’t ready to make any predictions. He knows there will be tough doubleheaders right from the start, against Carleton on Saturday at home, running all the way to the regular-season finale at archrival St. Olaf.

“We’ll need to prove ourselves all over again in conference play,” he said. “If we continue to play mistake-free baseball, we will win a lot of games.”

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