Forgoing its home opener against Illinois (10-7), Bradley baseball made a late change of plans and traveled to Champaign, Illinois for a midweek clash with the Illini. Inconsistency across the board continued for the Braves as they fell 6-4 and dropped to a 6-10 record overall.
Head coach Elvis Dominguez didn’t mince words about where the team stood more than a quarter through the campaign.
“We try to stay positive as well as we can, but I think they all know the realization of what’s going on,” Dominguez said. “We need the [improvement] to happen real quick, otherwise it becomes a prolonged ill-effect. It’s like death by a thousand paper-cuts.”
As Tuesday’s game neared and the Braves looked forward to opening up Dozer Park, they worried about whether the game would be able to be played as scheduled. Dominguez opened up about why the game flipped locations.
“Because we have natural turf, last Thursday we got rain, then we got snow on Friday and then we got freezing temperatures all the way through Monday,” Dominguez explained. “What happens is that field just freezes and then when it starts to warm up, it all comes up so our field was not playable. We were able to switch it around. We drove there and they’ll be here on April 25th now.”
With the game still on, the Braves hit the road for the team’s 16th straight matchup away from home. The Illini won the last two meetings with Bradley while the Braves lost five of their last seven games heading into Tuesday’s matchup.
The in-state showdown was a good emotion check for the ballclub, which hoped to knock off their Big Ten foe.
“The emotions are a little bit higher playing [Illinois] because they’re an in-state school,” junior Logan Delgado said. “Guys who go there [to a] Big Ten school think they’re better than mid-majors and schools like us.”
Delgado led the Braves in the cleanup spot as the designated hitter, walking once and bringing in two runs during a 3-for-4 day at the plate.
In a scoreless game in the third, senior pitcher Dalton Mall was hit hard early in the frame. The righty allowed a double to the Illini’s Connor Milton, a wild pitch which sent him to third and finally home off an ensuing single. An error by junior shortstop TJ Manteufel allowed Illinois’ Cal Hejza to advance to second and eventually steal third.
Still, with no outs in the frame, a second wild pitch from Mall gave the home team a 2-0 lead. The senior would exit with two outs.
As Bradley entered the fifth down 3-0 due to an Illinois solo shot, Manteufel and Delgado led the comeback charge. Following Manteufel’s fourth home run of the season, Delgado smacked a double to left which tied the game at three and chased Illinois starter Jake Swartz from the game.
“Coming back from injury I haven’t been able to catch all that much. I’ve been seeing the ball well the last few games [so that] has been good,” Delgado said.
All tied up entering the bottom half of the inning, the Braves were blitzed.
“I mean we were tied at three, then the following frame, four pitches and we’re down three,” Dominguez said. “Single, single, homerun. You can’t even get [a pitcher to warm up that quickly].”
Behind by three once again. Bradley put men on the corners with nobody out to start the sixth. Senior catcher Adam Brian hit into a double play to short that scored one for Bradley but cleared the bases. It was the latest key spot this season where the Braves were unable to take control with the game in front of them.
“We were one big hit away from really just turning the page and becoming that offense that we need to be,” senior Connor O’Brien said.
The Braves were unable to get better looks as they dropped their final game before conference play. Inconsistency in all areas, especially among Bradley’s offensive and veteran leaders, is what Dominguez pinpoints as the source of Bradley’s hardships.
“This is a game of failure and how you snap out of it,” Dominguez said. “I mentioned [Carson Husmann, Connor Manthey and Connor O’Brien] but those are guys you can count on and are pillars of your offense. All are struggling right now. If you get one of those guys to struggle, you can live with it because you have the other two, but when you lose all three, it’s tough.”
The trio leads the club in strikeouts as all have struck out a combined 66 times in 173 plate appearances. Husmann has batted just .193 while O’Brien holds a .227 average.
“It’s not because of a lack of work, I mean, we got home yesterday and two of them stayed back and hit some more last night,” Dominguez added. “We need one of those guys to be the clutch guys that we counted on.”
Overall, all the fingers shouldn’t be pointed towards the grouping above, the Braves altogether have hit just above .260 as a team, and hold a .770 OPS. Pressing the panic button would be a stretch as Bradley has played a difficult schedule and still ranks well within the Missouri Valley Conference.
With 32 games remaining including a full Valley slate and midweek clashes against more Big Ten opponents, the ship will have to begin to be steered toward safer waters.
“I mean you can do this preseason game and try to ramp up the energy all you want but at the end of the day, once Friday night hits in the conference opener, it’s gonna be a completely different level,” Delgado said.
As conference play begins with the Braves traveling for a three-game set with Murray State (10-11) this weekend, the hope is that the club will snap out of their funk and connect with a road series win.
“The only way for that to happen is to keep playing baseball and hopefully find that break somewhere,” Dominguez said.