As dominant as Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s pitching has been in recent games, its offense has been more eye-catching.
Because the Golden Lions have been scoring a lot more runs in such a short time, even though coach Carlos James said the pitching is more important.
“It’s fun to play behind the pitching,” senior second baseman/shortstop Cody De Mera said. “Every chance they get, they’re just going to do their job and we don’t have to score very many runs. There’s no pressure on us, and all of a sudden, we’re scoring 15, 20 runs.”
The Golden Lions shellacked Mississippi Valley State 24-5 on Tuesday for their season-high third straight victory, but that was just an example of how explosive their offense has been in recent games.
Not that anyone on the team has taken notice of the recent surge.
“I don’t think anyone’s realized it,” junior shortstop Isias Alcantar said. “We’ve just been playing, scoring runs.”
UAPB (14-22, 8-7 SWAC) has scored 47 runs the past three victories, six more than in the previous nine games. UAPB beat Grambling State 8-3 Sunday to earn a series victory at home, then went to Grambling and scored a 15-3 win Monday in the completion of a stopped game.
“They’ve been working on the fundamental parts of getting runners in, getting more runners over,” James said. “We’ve been seeing more pitches, we’ve been getting more guys on base, and then when we get them on base, we’ve been executing bunts and guys have been hitting sacrifice flies getting runners in. And then, it’s like anything else, it gets contagious. It just kind of took off from there.”
The offensive spurt has been big for a UAPB team that’s been outhit by opposing teams .264 to .242 on average. Meanwhile, the Lions have boasted the last two SWAC Pitchers of the Week, Jim Ploeger (5-3, 3.81 ERA) and Kyle Schwartz (3-3, 3.83).
“It’s huge for our confidence,” James said. “We’ve always pushed it well during the year and played pretty solid defense, but the hitting was the last thing that came around.”
And the confidence they’ve built has been key. UAPB has moved into at least tie for first place in the Western Division for the first time in James’ three seasons as head coach. Texas Southern (16-16, 8-7 SWAC) and UAPB are 1½ games ahead of Southern in the West race.
The Lions haven’t had to rely solely on their key hitters to produce runs during the current win streak. Junior infielder Patrick Phillips, a .214 batter on the season, drove in five runs during the rout at Valley. Junior catcher Mike Wieland, a .209 hitter, knocked in three runs and has 22 RBIs on the season, second only to Alcantar’s 31.
Meanwhile, the top three hitters for UAPB have remained consistent. Alcantar leads the team with a .348 batting average and 49 hits, including five home runs. He’s close to his personal goals of 35 RBIs and seven homers.
De Mera hits .296 with 40 hits and 20 RBIs. And junior utility player Kirby Campbell has registered 32 hits while batting .283.
UAPB has found its hitting groove with 17 newcomers and only three seniors on this year’s roster.
“I think chemistry has a lot to do with it,” said Alcantar, who transferred from Laney College in California. “Earlier in the year, none of us had played together, and baseball’s one of those things where you feed off each other.”
Said James: “We put guys at the top of the lineup who get on base a lot. What we ask those guys, 7, 8 and 9 (in the batting order) to do is raise their batting average point-15 (0.15). We don’t ask them to do much; just get on one time a game, and I guess it’s to relax them.”
The Lions will take a break from seeing SWAC competition to play a three-game set at Samford in Birmingham, Ala., beginning tonight. Samford is 19-19 overall and 8-10 in the Southern Conference.
James said he hopes to see some consistency and maybe “a good dose of humility” in their upcoming series. Following the Samford set is the start of a six-game home stand, beginning with Alcorn State on Tuesday and a key weekend series against Texas Southern.
“When your team is doing good like this, it kind of scares you,” James said. “You want them to be confident, but not overconfident. Playing Samford at this time is great for us so that it’ll keep us focused going into the next week.”