March 28: Fresh faces

Role players begin to assert themselves

It would be easy for Coach Chris Olean to look at his St. Thomas baseball roster, see so many starters returning from last year’s national title team, and decide to sit tight and rely on his veterans.

Not Olean. He’s proud the Tommies are “two deep” at every position. He likes the competition, insists he will start the players “who are hitting the best and pitching the best,” and knows the future is just as dependent on newcomers as stars.

Guys like junior Kris Edwards, who pitched in only six games last year. … senior John Bauer, rewarded after patiently waiting three years to start at second base. … sophomore Chuck Bruchu, back in action after missing last year with injuries. … sophomore Justin Novak, a backup shortstop. … and freshman Mark Dominik, who got his first start Saturday in Florida.

They all are eager to play, yet they all know their role on a championship team

Edwards graduated from Edina and enrolled at UW-Whitewater, where he relieved as a freshman and was ready to make a bigger contribution as a sophomore until he felt something “kind of snap” in his elbow on a pitch during a fall scrimmage. The result: Tommy John surgery in June 2007 to replace an ulnar collateral ligament.

He came home, took a semester off and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he tried out for the Gophers but lacked control of his pitches. He had friends at St. Thomas, transferred here last spring and decided to give baseball one more chance.

“I was healthy, too,” he said. “I never felt pain. The elbow was fine and my velocity was back to where it had been, in the mid-80s.”

Edwards threw only 13 innings but they were big ones, including five against UW-Stevens Point in a first-round NCAA regional game. He shut down the Pointers on seven strikeouts and picked up the win when Taylor Rahm homered in the 17th inning. Ten days later, Edwards found himself on a national championship team.

“The joy of hog-piling!” he said of the celebration after Matt Olson scored the winning run. “Guys said, ‘You transferred in at some time.’ Guys at Whitewater told me, ‘You are so lucky.’ ”

Edwards feels good about his performance so far this year, with 15.2 innings, three wins in four games and a solid five-inning, three-run outing against Minnesota. He’s anxious to do more but knows that “we have a lot of great pitchers. It’s a privilege to be here.”

Bauer took a different – and longer – route to becoming a starter. The senior from Eastview in Apple Valley played junior varsity his first two years and backed up Louie Salmen at second base last year, starting six games but hitting only .200 in 20 at bats.

“I sprained my ankle in the middle of the year,” he said. “I was running to second for a double play, did a quick stop and rolled my ankle. I was out for a couple of weeks, and that hurt.”

His junior varsity years taught him a valuable lesson – patience – and “helped me develop a work ethic,” he said. “I learned how to be my own coach. This year, I want to be there as a supporting senior – not a captain kind of guy but one who leads by example.”

Bauer was one of three Tommies with three hits in Saturday's first-game win over Chicago, all singles in three consecutive innings, and also scored a run.

Like Edwards, Bruchu has struggled with injuries. He pitched and played third as a freshman out of Hill-Murray but suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder and had surgery after fall practice. He missed the 2009 season and knew his arm wouldn’t be strong enough to pitch this year.

“I love playing third base,” he said. “It’s a good spot for me. I’m active on bunt plays and I like having to react quickly. I have been given a great chance to prove myself.”

Bruchu has started six of nine games and has had no errors. He had just two hits in his first 13 at bats, but hit two singles against Lawrence in the Florida opener and is getting more comfortable at the plate.

“I know I need to hit better,” he said. “I’m working at it.”

Novak came to St. Thomas from New Prague and spent his freshman season as a junior varsity infielder. He has played in five games – three as a pinch runner – and had his first extended action against Lawrence as he hit an RBI sacrifice fly, reached base on an error, and walked and scored. In the 14-3, second-game win over Chicago on Saturday, he singled his first four times at bat and scored three runs.

“I need to relax and have fun,” he said. “I have been lucky to play behind guys like Roy (Larson). Everyone helps each other out. It’s a true team effort.”

Dominik has discovered the same thing. The freshman pitcher from Hill-Murray is eager to learn from seniors Matt Schuld and Brandon Stone, and during practice one day in St. Paul he talked about what he thought his first start would be like.

“I don’t want to be nervous the first time I go out there – I just want to be calm and throw my game. Easier said than done!

That first start came Saturday against Chicago. He struck out the first hitter on three pitches, then hit a batter and walked one before getting out of the inning. He got into trouble in the fourth when he gave up three singles, two walks and a double as Chicago scored four times to tie the game, and Olean pulled him.

"He showed flashes of good pitching," Olean said of Dominik, who struck out one batter in each inning. "He just got behind in too many counts. He'll get better."

And that - getting better - is what it's all about for young players.


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