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PREVIEW: Braves baseball ready for a competitive MVC

Bradley outfielder swings at a pitch during the 2019 season. Prior to the 2021 season, Bolt was named the MVC pre-season player of the year by Collegiate Baseball. Photo by Kayla Johnson.

Major League Baseball players only get a four-month offseason and still need an entire month to warm up in Spring Training. The Bradley Braves’ baseball offseason has lasted 363 days, so it might take a little while for the competitive spirit to return, right?

Head coach Elvis Dominguez doesn’t think so.

“We haven’t played since last March,” Dominguez said. “I know they’re hungry; they want to play.”

Dominguez’s Braves have reeled off a stretch of winning that hasn’t been seen in a few decades.

Bradley is coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in 23 years during 2018 and 2019, not counting the truncated 2020 campaign. Now, with All-American senior outfielder Dan Bolt and Preseason All-MVC selections senior third baseman Brendan Dougherty and redshirt-junior reliever Theron Denlinger in tow, the Braves command more than just regional attention. 

“I think we always have a target on our back,” Dominguez said. “When everybody’s so competitive, you want to win as many games as possible. I just think we’ve gotten respectability not only in the league but nationally.” 

One player that has turned heads toward Peoria is Bolt,  third team All-American selection and a nearly unanimous favorite for MVC Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball magazine. 

Opting for a fifth year of eligibility, Bolt played at a torrid pace in 2020 before the Braves’ season was cut short after 10 games. In those contests, the Braves outfielder posted a .357 batting average and a 1.330 on-base plus slugging percentage, ranking fourth and first in the conference respectively. 

With a full season, the senior outfielder would have been on pace to sock an astounding 35 home runs in 50 games. However, Bolt provides more than just a flash of power to the Braves lineup. 

“Dan brings another element into it, not only with his talents on the field, but also his leadership,” Dominguez said. “You talk about having a great culture, that’s the guy that makes the culture great.”

In order to accumulate another 30-win season, Bolt agrees that the biggest key isn’t seen on the field. 

 “It’s all the work you put in during the wintertime, and not only that but a culture that starts with the coaches,” Bolt said. 

One such coach who promises to play a crucial role for the Braves in 2021 is pitching coach Andrew Werner. 

 “Coach Werner coming in the last two years has done a tremendous job developing arms and keeping guys healthy,” Bolt said. “Our whole team knows [success] is going to start on the mound.”

After a 2020 season where the Braves matched their opponents in nearly every statistical category, pitching is where the team looks to pull ahead of the pack.

“I’ve had a lot of great coaches throughout my career but one thing [Werner’s] done that no one else has done with me is that he’s very statistical,” Denlinger said. “He goes in-depth with Rapsodo and he can tell if you’re off just by looking at numbers.”

With advanced analytics commonplace in baseball today, Rapsodo is a technology used by Bradley’s pitchers that measures even the smallest details such as spin rate and axis of each pitch. 

“He doesn’t even have to be there watching you throw on the mound,” Denlinger said. “He really takes baseball into another form.” 

The Braves will need every competitive advantage they can get in the Missouri Valley, where Dominguez says “it’s a dogfight every weekend.”.The case can easily be made that the MVC is the best non-Power Five baseball conference in the country, sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament on an almost yearly basis. 

The 2021 season will see Bradley and the rest of the MVC play four-game series with doubleheaders scheduled every Saturday. Depth may decide who wins or loses games. However, Dominguez and the rest of the Braves see stretching their roster as more of a strength than a weakness. 

“Our bullpen runs deep, which is something that we’ve been lacking with in the past,” Denlinger said. “Now we have a team where you can run anybody out there for two, three, four innings after the starters, and they can roll with it and give us a really good chance.”

On the offensive end, the Braves will look to a mix of old and new players in their 2021 lineup. Dougherty and sophomore first baseman Connor O’Brien are the top picks to accompany Bolt as Bradley’s batting leaders. Bradley looks to replace the infield duo of Luke Shadid and Adam Rellihan with TJ Manteufel and Jackson Chatterton. Both freshmen have impressed in practice and tout high praise from the upperclassmen. 

Bradley’s projected starters for the 2021 season. Graphic by Jonathan Michel

Catcher Keaton Rice is one of six returning starters on BU’s roster this year and provides a steadying presence for the Braves battery. The junior backstop has been placed on the National Catcher-of-the-Year Watch List every season in his Bradley career. 

Bradley has all the pieces of the puzzle to an MVC Championship laid out in front of them, they just need to put the puzzle together. 

“Our success hinges on both sides showing up on the same day,” Denlinger said. “Last year we had very good hitting, and the next day we’d have very good pitching but we couldn’t get the two sides to combine. Getting both sides to do that every single game is going to be our key to success.”

“Everyone’s got to do their job,” Bolt added. “I think we have all the pieces and if we do our jobs, we’ll see success.”

The Braves open up the 2021 season against the Ball State Cardinals today at 5 p.m. at the Corn Crib in Normal.

Graphic by Jonathan Michel.
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