Anyone who has played the game of pool regularly associates the number eight with bad luck. Hitting in the 8-ball usually signifies a game-ending loss, and the Bradley Braves baseball team faced similar unfortunate fate with the number eight this past weekend against Mercer.
The Braves dropped all three contests, two of them due to eighth-inning heroics from Mercer outfielder Brandon Michie. However, one cannot say that the Braves did not show incredible resilience throughout.
After their third straight weekend bus trip of 11 hours or more, Bradley fought admirably, especially in the first two contests. Facing a 9-3 deficit after two innings on Friday, Bradley clawed its way back to a 9-9 tie going into the final three innings, featuring home runs from Dan Bolt and Eli Rawlinson. Mercer extinguished the Bradley comeback with an eighth inning 2-run single from Michie which proved to be the difference in a 11-9 victory for the Bears.
The Braves reversed the trend on Saturday, taking a 7-1 lead after three innings in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, thanks to 3-run dingers by Rawlinson and Carson Husmann. The junior Rawlinson ended the weekend going 5-11 with four RBIs and two home runs. Five different players went yard for the Braves during the series.
“We’ve just been doing the little things right and sticking with our team approach as a group hitting-wise,” Rawlinson said. “What clicked for me personally this past weekend was honestly to relax and executing [our plan] when given the opportunity.”
The Bears did anything but hibernate though, as they dealt an 8-run blow to Bradley in the fourth inning. The Braves responded with a run in the fifth and three in the sixth inning to hold an 11-9 lead. The eighth inning drew more bad luck for the Braves as it was Michie once again for Mercer with timely hitting, this time knocking an inside-the-park home run that plated three. Mercer held on to win 12-11.
Giving up runs in the late innings doesn’t usually bode well for coaches’ moods, but Bradley head coach Elvis Dominguez remains calm and remembers that such things happen in baseball.
“We had three bad innings in three games and it cost us all three games,” Dominguez said. “This is a game where you’re never out of it, the first game we gave up six in the first but we kept chipping away and next thing you know, we’re tied. We were always playing catch up so I wouldn’t necessarily say they were the toughest ones [I’ve lost].”
Saturday’s nightcap saw the Braves battle back yet again, scoring four in the third inning to neutralize a 4-0 Mercer start. However, the Bears scored in every inning except the fifth, en route to a 15-5 victory.
“Even if we get punched in the face early in the game, we can still stick to our plan and if we execute it, we’ll accomplish what we need to do by the end of the game,” Rawlinson said, summarizing the weekend series.
A positive note that Bradley can take away is that their bats are hotter than ever, averaging over nine runs per game in their last eight contests. Freshman center fielder Ryan Vogel is arguably the hottest in the batter’s box, carrying a nine-game hitting streak after the Mercer series.
“With Ryan, we always knew he was going to hit, it was just a matter of when,” Dominguez said. “I wouldn’t call it a surprise, this is what we thought we were getting a year ago.”
The team’s spirits aren’t low, even after a few crushing defeats, according to Rawlinson. The main challenge for the team as the non-conference season winds down is keeping bodies fresh after long bus rides down south.
“You’re talking about spending six days on a bus and with all these COVID protocols, I’m sure it’s taken some things out of our guys,” Dominguez said. “This week is a little shorter trip, so I’m hoping we can get our legs underneath us.”
The shorter trip that Dominguez referred to will take him back to a familiar spot in Omaha, Nebraska for this weekend’s series against Creighton. A 1986 Creighton graduate, Dominguez played shortstop for the Bluejays and later began his coaching career with the team post-graduation.
Due to the Bluejays’ original series being canceled, the Braves now get an opportunity to play at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. Rawlinson called the opportunity to play on NCAA baseball’s most hallowed grounds a “blessing,” but Dominguez has told his team to remember it’s still the same game.
“The bases are still 90 feet away, the mound is still 60 feet 6 inches away,” Dominguez said. “I always tell my club that ‘Everyone wants to be the man but very rarely do people actually rise up to the occasion.’ So, I’m hoping they’ll rise to the occasion because everyone wants to play on that field again come June.”