Since sporting events were paused throughout the United States in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, collegiate athletes have been left without competition for months. But for one group of Braves, the ball was back in play as early as June.
One of the few exceptions to the pause on college sports has been summer collegiate baseball. Under normal circumstances, leagues from coast to coast provide players with the opportunity to play as many as 72 extra games following the spring NCAA season.
Coming off a season in which Bradley only took the field 10 times before spring sports were canceled, summer competition was crucial for players.
“It was probably more important than it’s ever been,” head baseball coach Elvis Dominguez said. “Position players and pitchers, both, needed to go out and see some live pitching since we hadn’t done anything since March.”
However, the process of finding players teams to play for proved to be a challenge. Many leagues, including the prestigious Cape Cod League, canceled their 2020 seasons, leaving coaches and players scrambling.
“Our guys are all placed [to summer teams] by September, October, for the following summer. So all of a sudden when leagues started going down and we’re trying to get some guys in certain places, it was just a matter of supply and demand,” Dominguez said.
Luckily, that demand was met by the creation of a handful of “pod” style leagues. One of which, the Kernels Collegiate League located in Bloomington, turned out to be convenient for a few Braves players.
Instead of playing a second season in the Cape Cod League, junior catcher Keaton Rice made the 45-minute commute from Bradley to Corn Crib stadium to play in the four-team league.
“Honestly, minus the Cape, I’d say it’s the best summer league I’ve played in,” Rice said. “It was just a lot of fun to know that you’re going to the same, nice turf field every day. You get to know almost everyone that’s in the league, whether they’re on your team or not.”
Rice’s squad – the Bloomington Bobcats – was filled with familiar faces, as the top six batters in the team’s typical lineup were all players from Bradley or Illinois State.
“Us six kind of carried the team to play well,” Rice said. “Other guys kind of followed suit and saw what we were doing and wanted to join in.”
Rice’s performance earned him a spot on the “All-Kernels” team alongside fellow Brave and Bobcat, senior Dan Bolt.
Sophomore utility player Connor O’Brien, who was also set to play on the Cape, spent the summer in his hometown of San Diego, playing ball for the LongBoarders of the San Diego League.
The home cooking helped O’Brien not only during the season but also during the three-month off period, during which he utilized an at-home gym and batting cage.
“I pretty much had a routine of lifting, conditioning and then hitting pretty much every day,” O’Brien said. “I feel like my situation was a lot better than most because I was able to do all that and just work my craft.”
The work paid off in the form of a .326 batting average, .522 slugging percentage and an all-star game appearance for O’Brien.
Working out throughout the spring and early summer months was a theme among Bradley players. While some players had access to fields and bullpens, others had to get more creative.
“When we first moved back, I was actually picking up a baseball, I was throwing it into a cornfield, running going to get it and then I would throw it back,” Redshirt junior pitcher Theo Denlinger said. “For those three months, I was never off. I was always working out, doing baseball, running, just continuously trying to get better.”
Despite the farm field workouts, Denlinger got off to a rough start for the Northwoods League’s Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, allowing an earned run in three of his first four appearances. But the 6-foot-3-inch righty bounced back in a big way, lowering his ERA to 3.46, striking out 16 and picking up four saves in the closer role.
The summer proved to be more beneficial than expected for the hard-throwing reliever. The Cuba City, Wisconsin native said he developed a cutter while improving his changeup and slider, which compliment a 98 mph fastball.
“Once I got comfortable, my wheels were greasing, we were ready to go,” Denlinger said. “It progressed me as a pitcher leaps and bounds from where I was last year. I know my pitching coach, coach [Andrew] Werner, has already noticed that … I was decent in the past but this is a whole new Theo.”
Prior to 2020, Denlinger played two seasons for the Madison Mallards of the NWL and had a contract with the squad for this summer, but the team did not play due to COVID-19. The change of scenery ended up working out well, as Fond du Lac won the Wisconsin-Illinois Pod championship, with Denlinger recording the final out of the championship game.
“They actually started chanting my name as I was warming up in the championship game, so that was absolutely incredible,” Denlinger said. “Even if we didn’t win, I would’ve still said this was the best summer of baseball that I’ve played. But obviously, we did win, so it makes it a little extra sweeter, but it was amazing.”
While much of Bradley’s 2021 roster played some form of summer ball, a handful of players weren’t able to be placed with a team. This makes things especially difficult for newcomers who have yet to adjust to the new level of play.
“We’ll take two weeks here of individual work and try to build up their arm strengths, trying to build up their at bats, and so on for those guys that are young,” Dominguez said. “I’m sure the first couple days it’ll be a little challenging, but we’ll proceed as normal starting in the middle of September.”
Bradley is set to begin a fall scrimmage schedule in mid-September, but with COVID-19, players know nothing is certain.
“I’m just hoping to play in the fall,” O’Brien said. “As of now, it looks like we are, but obviously it’s a fluid situation, so, who knows?”