Baseball makes one last push for conference tournament

Marshall Hampson

For the Sacramento State baseball team, how well the Hornets play in the final weeks of the regular season determines if the team makes it into the postseason.

The Hornets are 16-29-1 overall while posting a 5-11 record in the Western Athletic Conference. Last year, Sac State had a record of 27-27 and finished last in the WAC by two games with a record of 8-14.

In the preseason polls, Sac State was predicted to finish last in the conference. This season has been filled with good and bad streaks. At the beginning of April, the team won three of its first four games. At the end of April, the team lost five straight games after winning the series against the University of Hawaii.

Associate head coach Reggie Christiansen said he and the rest of the coaching staff are concentrating on the rest of the season and have not been dwelling on the games from earlier in the season.

“With so many new players, our expectations were to be a little bit better than we are right now,” Christiansen said. “But we can’t change the past so we need to just move forward the last three weeks of the season. We put ourselves into a situation to make the conference tournament. Not only make it, but to get a No. 2 or 3 seed if we play well the next two or three weekends.”

Sac State is in last place in the WAC and needs to be in the top six teams of the conference to make the tournament. Even though the Hornets missed the WAC tournament last year, junior infielder Trevor Paine said he believes the team can go far in the postseason.

“In order to make a regional, we have to win the WAC tournament,” Paine said. “I mean, our goal right now is to be one of the top six teams. When we get there, hopefully we can bring our best baseball of the season, get on a hot streak like Fresno State did two years ago and hopefully make a name for Sac State.”

Paine has arguably been one of the best storylines this year for the Hornets. Paine switched positions during the offseason from pitcher to infield due to an elbow stress fracture. He leads the team in batting average at .390, 57 hits, eight home runs and a slugging percentage of .616.

Despite his success this season, Paine said he feels the team can still play better.

“We haven’t been as successful so far as we’d like to be, but we got a lot guys out here with a good work ethic,” Paine said. “We have a good team chemistry and once we get our things back on track after these last two losses, there’s no reason why we can’t start playing our best baseball right around the WAC tournament.”

First baseman Josh Powers leads the team in runs scored with 37 and said the team got off to a slow start at the beginning of the season.

“It took awhile for the team, with so many new guys, to figure out who everybody was and starting playing together as a team,” Powers said. “I feel like we’re finally starting to do that more and hopefully we get on a roll.”

The team lost All-American Tim Wheeler to the Colorado Rockies, as he was drafted No. 32 overall in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft. Despite Wheeler’s absence, the Hornets started the regular season winning five of their first 10 games, including wins against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Gonzaga University, St. Mary’s College and UC Davis.

Powers said splitting the team’s first 10 games came from getting acquainted with the team in the preseason games.

“We started out with a pretty tough preseason conference schedule and I think it helped us as a team,” Powers said. “Once we got to conference, we started to play better.”

As the end of regular season gets closer, Powers said the team still has areas for improvement.

“It’s just going to take consistency,” Powers said. “It doesn’t have to be awesome offense and pitching, it just has to be good offense and pitching. What we struggled with at the beginning was that we had great pitching and no defense and hitting. We had terrible pitching and all kinds of offense. It will come through having trust in the system that we have here and our teammates getting the job done.”

Pitching has been hit-and-miss for the Hornets. The team has received some good individual performances from freshman Brandon Creel, who threw eight innings of one-hit ball April 3 against UC Santa Barbara in his first start as a Hornet, and sophomore Jesse Darrah, who threw a complete game March 13 against No. 16 UC Irvine. However, the staff has a 5.94 ERA on the season.

Head coach John Smith and the Hornets have six more regular season games left to improve their conference record as the May 27 tournament approaches. Christiansen said Smith’s expertise will help get Sac State to finish strong.

“Coach Smith does a great job of motivating our guys and making sure they play one game at a time,” Christiansen said. “We’re just trying to play the best that we can and get them to make the necessary adjustments that need to made.”

Christiansen said the Hornets would have to improve in the final two series against UNLV and Fresno State before they have a shot at getting into the tournament.

“Everybody’s goal is to win the WAC tournament,” Christiansen said. “That’s way down the line and we just need to focus on having a good practice. We need to be more focused and more prepared both offensively and defensively. Our pitching has been pretty good, so if we can continue to get the same pitching as we have been week in and week out, I think we have a good chance.”

Marshall Hampson can be reached at mhampson@statehornet.com