TAB MUG MUTKA 100109 Andy Lavalley/Post-Tribune ptmet
Updated: July 7, 2012 8:21AM
No question about it. Valparaiso flat-lined in its first regional baseball appearance since 1968.
When you’re being outscored 15-3 by Purdue and Kentucky, committing eight errors in the process, your fans tend to sit on their hands.
Still, it wasn’t the beginning of the end. More like the end of the beginning.
“We’re not one-year wonders,” Coach Tracy Woodson insists.
Don’t mistake him for a starry-eyed optimist. The facts, which include seven returning starters, support him.
Outfielders Will Hagel and Steve Scoby have played their last game for the Brown and Gold, but they’re reloading, not rebuilding. Make that eight if you include Mark Johnson, who replaced an injured Hagel in the Horizon League tournament and surfaced as its MVP.
“We’re built for down the road; the program’s pretty well set up for the next few years,” Woodson declares.
His core group includes Spencer Mahoney, part of an intact infield. The freshman shortstop batted .345 after rehabbing a knee injury to help the Crusaders win 28 of their last 35 coming into the NCAA Regional.
Power was the only missing link on a team with four .300 hitters. No Crusader hit more than two home runs, but they still averaged 5.6 runs with effective small-ball until last weekend. Manufactured runs were usually more than enough for a pitching staff with a stingy 3.37 ERA. On their way to a record-setting 35 victories the Crusaders averaged a run-plus more than their victims.
They did it with team-oriented players like Tanner Vavra, a one-eyed infielder who never let a childhood fishing hook accident interfere with baseball. Vavra, the son of Twins’ hitting coach Joe Vavra, returns with a .330 average and a reputation for sacrificing his bat as well as his body.
He ranks among the Division I leaders in bunts and being plunked by stray pitches (both 22 times).
As is nearly always the case with mid-major programs one or two solid starting pitchers can be difference makers. The Crusaders came up with Tyler Deetjen (8-3, 3.12 ERA), Kevin Wild (6-4, 2.91), and Kyle Wormington (6-6, 3.28). Those three accounted for six of the 12 Horizon weekly pitching awards.
Wormington, a transfer from Connors State who earned Horizon co-newcomer of the year honors, will return to anchor a staff which must also replace closer Jarad Miller (5-2, 2.06, eight saves).
“He throws three pitches for strikes,” says Woodson, highlighting an effective changeup. Wormington’s velocity tops out at 87 mph.
Deetjen and Wild will be missed, but you can put the crying towel on dry ice.
No need for tears with the anticipated return of LaPorte’s Kevin Upp, currently rehabbing a surgically repaired torn ligament. A mid-week starter two years ago, Upp made eight appearances before being medically redshirted.
Freshman Ryan Kennedy, who introduced himself with 10 appearances (2-0, 0.60 ERA), also promises relief. Promising recruits, who include seven pitching wanna-bees, will stockpile an abundant roster with prospects, not suspects.
“We’ve got arms,” Woodson says. “We’re built for down the road.”
First baseman John Loeffler, who carries a 35-game on-base streak into next season, likes VU’s approach. It’s what attracted him from Des Moines Community College.
“Confidence is huge in baseball,” he said before the regional. “We can hang with anybody (competively) we play, big-time, small-time.”
Beating teams like Arkansas, Notre Dame and Ball State provided positive strokes which carried the Crusaders into post-season play. Can they take the next step? Stay tuned for 2013.
Purdue’s Kevin Plawecki lived up to rave notices in the U.S. Steel Yard over the weekend. The Big Ten player of the year ranked in the top three in the conference in average (.365), doubles (20), runs (51) and slugging percentage (.578) to name a few dominant offensive categories.
The junior catcher is also a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award for the second year in a row. In the Baseball America Draft Preview he was compared to White Sox veteran A.J. Pierzynski. Also making him draftworthy: he’s the best contact hitter in the midwest (only eight strikeouts in 211 at-bats).
Speaking of offense, regional worthy Kent State led Division I in doubles (150) and ranked third in hits (669).
Mid-American player of the year George Roberts headed the charge with a .373 average. The conference RBI champ notched his 30th multi-hit game against Purdue Saturday. Also the league’s top defensive first baseman, he sparked the Flashes to their fourth straight regional appearance.
Teammate Jimmy Rider’s base-clearing double, which deflated the Boilers, came as no surprise. The MAC attacker has 27 two-baggers, ranking fourth in the country. In the pitching-friendly Steel Yard ( no home runs in the first four regional games) the senior shortstop padded his MAC career record for hits (344). He is batting .365.