(Photo via Colorado Corner, seen here)
It’s that time of the season when, if everything goes right, teams will make it to their conference tournaments, but, if even one thing goes wrong, their season will end sooner than they hoped. That is the situation for the University of Northern Colorado Bears.
They currently sit in seventh place in the Western Athletic Conference, and have six games left of conference play to make their bid for the tournament. They’ll have to win at least three and either UT Rio Grande Valley or CSU Bakersfield will have to lose three. Luckily, the remaining six games for the Bears are two three-game series with UTRGV and CSU Bakersfield. The ball is in their hands, but it will take their best stuff for them to get there.
“I’ve done it before and I need to do it again,” said Coach Carl Iwasaki about coaching his team through such a make-or-break situation. He expressed that he would do anything to be on the field playing alongside his team if that would help them win.
As for what they need to do to win, the Bears pitching staff will need to match pace with their offense. The team ranks 17th in Division I Baseball for runs scored, and 18th in on base percentage (OBP), but isn’t even in the top 50 in terms of ERA. In the WAC, they rank seven out of eight in terms of ERA.
Part of the reason their pitching staff isn’t performing as well as the position players is because of injuries to their Friday and Saturday night starters, potential draft selection RHP Troy Watson and senior RHP Aaron Hamilton. Both are slated to return this weekend or next, hopefully well enough and soon enough to help the team make it into conference play.
“It gives an opportunity for others who were bullpen guys to step up,” Coach Iwasaki said. “That’s kind of the great thing with…baseball. Injuries are difficult but having guys step up and achieve is even better.” One of those guys has been closer Connor Leedholm, who has eight saves on the season.
Also stepping up have been the position players. One of those players is center fielder Austin Miller, who has created some draft conversation for himself, batting .325 with a .468 OBP. Other standouts include Jack Pauley, Dean Lawson, Tyler Yamaguchi, and Matt Burkart who are all batting over .300 with slugging percentages over .425 and OBP over .385. Coach Iwasaki emphasizes that their slugging and on base percentages are what allows them to score runs, and have been the focus of the season. Despite the difficulties with pitching, the players have pushed through to provide great offensive campaigns.
“I harp on routine and staying with our routine and staying with our plan,” Coach Iwasaki said. “When adversity hits everyone sinks back to their own method. They speed up and forget to slow down and not beat themselves up.” The Bears coaching staff has focused on teaching their players to slow down, remember to breathe, and take every pitch as it comes.
Coach Iwasaki has advice from former Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd on his wall that reads: Your superstars need to play like superstars, injuries will happen they just can’t come in bunches, and surprises have to happen.
“Right now we need that third one,” said Coach Iwasaki. “That’s all I know.” The Bears made it to the WAC Tournament the past three seasons, and if everything turns out right they hope to make it there again for the fourth year in a row.