When the season began, College of Idaho baseball fans likely were scratching their head, wondering just what might become of their team.
Defensive miscues and walks led to a pair of losses to Cascade Conference foe Concordia in Lewiston, and despite a four-game sweep of Whitman and a pair of wins over Dickinson State, things turned worse for the Yotes when British Columbia came to town.
The Thunderbirds swept that key NAIA West Region opening series, leaving the Yotes a humble 7-7 overall, but even worse, 0-4 in the NAIA West.
Two more losses to Montana State-Billings, and a series-opening setback to Whitworth stretched the skid to seven straight, then things clicked.
“I think pitching-wise, we’ve found our rotation and there’s guys putting pressure on each other,” C of I coach Shawn Humberger said, one reason for the change which has led to nine straight wins for the Yotes as they head into another crucial NAIA West doubleheader today when they host Corban starting at 11 a.m.
“I think we just got off to a slow start and we just finally figured things out and we’re on a roll now,” added pitcher Bobby Wassmann, who worked eight innings of four-hit ball in relief for a win Friday.
“Then we made some defensive changes,” Humberger added.
Jarel Lewis moved to catcher full-time, sending Jordan Lanman into the outfield, while Todd Griffiths, who started the season at second, shifted to shortstop.
“Since we did those two things I think we’ve won nine in a row,” Humberger said, “and that sparked (shortstop Tanner) Hodges who played great in the fall but hadn’t been playing. So now he’s back in the lineup.
“Making some changes there got some people’s attention who weren’t playing well, but had the capability of playing well, and that kind of sparked our defense.”
Both pitching and defense have been key, along with the intra-squad competition for playing time that seems to be driving the Coyotes to perform at their best.
Then, there’s the offense, which last season relied a lot on big rallies powered by big hits.
The Yotes hit 51 homers in 54 games last season — easy math that equates to nearly a long-ball a game. This year, they have nine in 26 games. That’s one every third game.
So, the team has shifted to bunting runners over, playing hit-and-run, stealing bases and executing to manufacture runs.
“We’ve had a tough time making the adjustment with these new bats,” Humberger said. “We’re coming off a team that was very offensive, but we sat back and hit three-run home runs and a bunch of doubles, but we didn’t run that much, so we don’t have a bunch of guys in the program who’ve been on a running team and have had to bunt and hit-and-run.
“So when we started implementing it with these new bats, especially when we started playing here (Wolfe Field) and the ball wasn’t going anywhere, we’ve struggled.”
Until Friday, when the C of I put pressure on Corban by stealing 8-of-9 bases, executed some timely hit-and-runs, and scored three runs in an inning without a hit in the opener, and another run without a hit in an inning in the nightcap.
Every game looms large
With the win streak, and the Yotes playing with confidence, they’re back in the thick of the NAIA West race at 6-4, 2 1/2 games back of front-runner UBC (8-1).
Of course, having already stopped the T-Birds a four-game edge, every game — even against league cellar-dwellar Corban (2-15, 0-5) means a ton.
“Every win now is huge because we put ourselves in a hole that first weekend against UBC,” Humberger said. “We came and did not play very well and they did, so you’re down 0-4 going into the thing.
“So you can’t afford any losses, so it was a huge sweep for us last weekend (winning 4-of-4 at Concordia) and to get these two, to give us a chance for (Saturday), that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Why the urgency?
The playoff race in the NAIA West Region became very complicated this season, with five teams making the playoffs to be hosted by the South division winner.
The Yotes — along with UBC, Concordia and Corban — play in the North division, along with Lewis-Clark State, which plays league games that count toward the league standings, but as NAIA World Series host with an automatic berth to the Series, the Warriors do need to play at regionals.
In past years, each team from the North played a four-game series against one South division team. This year, there’s no cross-over, so the standings are based solely on what you do against your division foes.
Now, here is the complicated part. The top two team in the North and the top two in the South earn bids to the regional, along with a fifth at-large team, deemed the next-best in the NAIA West — excluding LCSC in all of the above.
Currently, that would mean Patten would host the regional, with Menlo getting the South’s other berth, while British Columbia and the College of Idaho would get automatics.
The fifth spot would be a toss-up between Concordia (6-13, 2-6) and Simpson (4-15, 2-3).
Now, with five teams in a double-elimination tournament, the bracket needed to be juggled, which means the fourth and fifth seeds must play one extra opening-round game, with the winner meeting the top seed and tournament host.
That means being one of the top three teams in vital come the postseason, as the fourth and fifth seeds are guaranteed an extra game.
But, there’s one more thing to complicate the process — the regional has been pre-seeded. The host, the South division winner, gets the No. 1 seed. The North division winner — currently UBC — gets the No. 2 seed. No. 3 isn’t based on record, but has already been given to the South division’s runner-up — currently Menlo — with the No. 4 seed going to the North’s runner-up — currently the Coyotes.
So, for the Yotes to avoid an extra game, they must win the North division.
That means every games is vital for the Coyotes.
Against the South division
Along with avoiding an extra game, the North Division winner likely will face the tournament’s weakest team, the South division runner-up. At least, that’s based on the history of both divisions.
Last season, when the divisions still played cross-over games, the South was 6-22 combined against the C of I, UBC, Concordia and Corban.
Patten was the lone team with a winning record, going 3-0 against Corban. This year’s current runner-up, Menlo, did not play in the NAIA West Region last year.
Big day for Lanman
The senior from La Grande, Ore., played in 123 games with 357 at-bats his first three years in Caldwell, but not once did he managed a home run.
That changed quickly Friday, as Lanman says an adjustment to his swing led to his first collegiate homer in the bottom of the third of the opening game of a doubleheader against Corban.
Lanman then didn’t wait too long for his second career dinger — five at-bats later in the bottom of the sixth in game two, Lanman laced a two-run shot just inside the foul pole in left field.
“The odds of that happening were very slim,” Lanman said. “I don’t know where it came from but it just happened.”
The power explosion by the Yote catcher-turned-outfielder vaulted Lanman from never having hit a home run for the C of I, to the team’s second-leading home-run hitter this year, with two on the season.
“It felt good,” he said. “I’ve been struggling a little bit this year, not only to boost the team but maybe I’ll be able to get some confidence going.”