May 4, 2006
By Lisa Porter
The Santa Clara
Bronco baseball is picking up momentum after key wins over Loyola Marymount and St. Mary's, but the victories may be coming too late for the Broncos to earn a playoff spot.
With a conference record of 7-8, there is still a glimmering hope for post-season play; however, the team will need to win their next two series, as well as get some help from the other WCC teams. The Broncos are only three games out of first place and would need to earn one of the top two spots to earn a playoff berth in the WCC conference championship.
This season, Santa Clara has a large number of young players who helped contribute to the late post-season drive, despite earlier losses to Pepperdine and San Francisco.
"There's times when we've played the game real well, and there's been a couple of times when we haven't played the game real well, but, right now, we're playing some pretty good baseball," Head Coach Mark O'Brien said.
O'Brien also said the Broncos need to balance a strong pitching performance with a good offensive approach in order to be more consistent, noting that the pitching staff's difficulty with getting the third out and the offense's leaving of runners in scoring position have been the biggest problems.
O'Brien also stated that the inconsistency of the young pitching staff and the loss of key players such as Anthony Rea and Robert Perry are obstacles that have prevented putting more wins on their record.
"It's either off or on: we'll have a good pitching performance, and then our offense won't pick up our pitching. It's been kind of back and forth," said senior Eric Newton.
With much of the pitching staff consisting of freshmen and sophomores, the team has been forced to rely on players who haven't had a lot of time to transition from high school to college baseball.
However, one Bronco pitcher hasn't found this jump to be challenging. Redshirt freshman Matt Wickswat picked up a win in Saturday's triumph over St. Mary's, improving his record to 8-2 this season, which is good enough to lead the Broncos in wins. Wickswat is also second on the team in ERA, posting a 3.01 mark.
The following Sunday, freshman Mark Willinsky picked up the save after throwing two innings and allowing zero runs against the Gaels.
"They might get hit around a little bit, and they might walk some guys," said O'Brien, referring to his young staff. "But their body language continues to be good, and they keep their presence on the mound."
O'Brien also said that the veterans have been forced to take on a greater leadership role because of the team's youth.
"There are a couple upperclassmen who have shown us what's going on, and we've been able to pick it up and follow along, and that's helped out a lot," said Wickswat.
Still, the Broncos have yet to master obtaining that ever-elusive third out.
"Sometimes they get two outs in an inning and might have a little bit of a let up," said O'Brien of the team's struggles. "We try and teach them that if you try to win every pitch as opposed to the outcome, then it's a better scenario for you."
Another factor that has hindered the Broncos is one that is somewhat beyond their control -- losing prospects to the Major Leagues. In the past two years, the Broncos have lost seven players to the Major League Draft.
Since the draft is in June, it is nearly impossible for Santa Clara to replace these players right away, so they have to improvise with the returning players they have.
O'Brien said he compensates for the players that sign to major league teams by recruiting extensively the next year.
"If a guy goes to the draft in June, you're going to have a hard time replacing him then, so you take that scholarship money and put it toward the following year," he said.
This year, O'Brien has been happy with his new recruits. Two of the team's top hitters, Matt Long and Brady Fuerst, are both freshmen. Long has been a spark at the top of the lineup, batting .357 and scoring 22 runs, while Fuerst is batting .310.
Long also preserved the one-run Bronco lead against the Gaels as he caught a fly ball in right and fired it home before the game-tying run could score.
Though winning two of three games this past weekend against Saint Mary's helped them climb closer to a playoff berth, the Broncos still sit three games back.
In order to make the playoffs, the Broncos will have to win the next two series, as well as see the top rack teams suffer some losses.
The Broncos continue conference play this weekend in San Diego.
They will then finish the season at home against Portland the weekend of May 12-14.