The 2009 St. Thomas baseball team certainly proved the old baseball principle about how pitching and defense win games.
The Tommies won the NCAA Division III championship with a pitching staff that recorded a 2.12 ERA and a defense that made only nine errors in 12 playoff games. For the season, St. Thomas led Division III for the second straight year with a fielding average of .978.
With three starters and a closer returning for the 2010 season, it would be easy to say pitching is the key for the Tommies this season. But when asked to list four other factors that will mean success, each coach has a slightly different perspective.
Interim Coach Chris Olean puts a premium on pitching, and that’s no surprise. Olean was an All-American pitcher for St. Thomas when it finished second in the nation in 1999 and coached the Tommie hurlers the last nine years as an assistant coach under Dennis Denning.
“No. 1 is to keep Matt Schuld and Brandon Stone healthy,” Olean said. “Matt has to beat the other team’s No. 1 or we won’t move on. He proved he could do it last year (when nine of his school-record 12 wins came against nationally ranked teams, plus a win over the Minnesota Gophers). Brandon is the guy we’ll rely on when we have that one or two-run lead in the last inning.”
Olean’s following four factors are:
• No. 2: Catching Junior Brady Field is back from splitting the job last year with Ben Wartman, who decided not to return but to concentrate on getting ready for his senior year as the Tommies’ leading rusher in football. Olean knows he needs to develop a second catcher and plans to tap junior Andy Kappers, a first-year player who also starred on the hockey team.
• No. 3: Team defense The coach believes St. Thomas can three-peat as the nation’s top defensive team, pointing to an outfield that returns the peerless Matt McQuillan in center and Matt Olson in right, with first-year starter Taylor Rahm in left. Shortstop Roy Larson and first baseman Tom Wippler are veterans, joined by newcomers Chuck Brucci and John Bauer at third and second.
• No. 4: Hitting Olean hired assistant coach Matt Faulken, a 1998 and 1999 teammate and two-time All-American who led the nation in RBI as a junior, with a goal of being more aggressive at the plate and developing “a little more power.” The Tommies hit .324 last year but had only 23 homers, 17 triples and 104 doubles among 547 hits. In six Metrodome games this month, St. Thomas hit .286 with 14 doubles and three triples but no homers.
• No. 5: Aggressive base-running One goal of Matt Vanderbosch, another new assistant coach, is to have the Tommies run more. “We have fast guys,” Olean said, “but we haven’t stolen a lot of bases in the past. We need sustained pressure on defenses – when you get guys on base, you can make things happen.” The Tommies had nine stolen bases in 10 attempts in their first six games.
Two of Faulken’s five factors have to do with offense – no surprise in that he runs the Line Drive Baseball Academy in Lino Lakes. He wants the Tommies to take better advantage of offensive opportunities and aims to score runners from third with less than two outs at a 70 percent clip. “We need to cut loose,” he said. “If we attack the ball and have an attitude at the plate, it will make a difference.” His other three factors:
• Throw strikes “If we stay ahead of hitters,” he said, “we’ll be in games.”
• Eliminate “stupid” mental mistakes “The physical mistakes you can handle, but the mental mistakes will hurt you.”
• Have a killer instinct He cited the second win over St. Scholastica on March 6 as an example. The Tommies scored three runs in the top of the first and, with Schuld on the mound, “coasted” to a 3-1 win. “It’s not that we lacked intensity,” he said, “but we didn’t focus enough. We thought a 3-0 lead with our ace was good enough.”
Vanderbosch also put pitching and defense at the top of his list, but emphasized the importance of productive at-bats (“work the counts; a 10-pitch out is a good out") – and doing little things right.
“You can have all the tools in the world,” he said, “but it’s the little things that make a difference: moving a runner from first to third, getting a runner home from third with one out, not messing up a sacrifice bunt. That stuff counts.”
Ray Noble, another 1999 Olean teammate, is the third new assistant coach. He will handle the junior varsity, and after pitching and defense wants to maintain a high energy level. “It’s a long season,” he said. “The first game, watching these guys, you could see the energy and excitement. They were jumping out of their skin.”
Noble also values “game management” skills, or what he called “the difference between good and bad coaching: when to pull a pitcher, when to hit and run, when to steal. That comes from experience,” he added, “and this coaching staff has it.”