Sports aren’t all fun and games. Well, they are when you’re winning, and Three Rivers baseball has been doing a lot of that over the last couple of weeks after an up-and-down start to the season.
There’s a palpable sense of looseness and lightheartedness in the dugout during each game.
“I think the camaraderie that our guys have with one another, I think they realize the benefit of playing the game the right way and having fun,” Three Rivers coach Stacey Burkey said. “That’s a productive way to play. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot and certainly relieves a little stress and pressure.
“It’s definitely a difference maker. I think we’re in a good place right now as far as that goes, and hopefully we’ll just keep building on what we’ve done recently.”
Despite a stretch of 10 losses in 12 games, the players didn’t overreact to it or put too much pressure on themselves.
After all, baseball seasons are a long grind. Now, the Raiders are in the midst of three straight series wins and enjoying themselves in the process. They joke around and sing along with songs in the dugout, but when their respective number is called, they go out and get the job done.
“It’s a game, and when you start winning and playing good, you have fun,” freshman Cade Kennedy said. “Everyone’s getting along and everything is going our way. We had a little rough patch and balls didn’t fall. Now, balls are falling and we’re playing good baseball.”
The result is a 15-13-1 record that is already four wins away from matching last season’s total with a month left in the regular season. The fun-loving demeanors have been there all season, but they’re amplified when the wins start to pile up.
“Whenever we have the momentum, it’s definitely an advantage for us, so we’ve just gotta keep playing good baseball, keep having fun and we’re just going to keep winning, freshman Roberto Mejia said.
The biggest change in the turnaround has been the defense, starting with the pitching.
“I think it just all starts on the mound. Whenever that pitcher brings that energy, they’ll make pitches, we’ll make plays and then we just start hitting and it all comes together,” Mejia said.
During the previous string of six straight losses, the Raiders allowed at least nine runs in each of those games. Now, they’ve held teams to four or fewer runs in five of the last six outings with the exception being a 15-7 win against Shawnee Community College.
“The last three series, I think we’ve had a lot of energy on and off the field,” Kennedy said. “Guys show up to the ballpark and we’re ready to play; we’re ready to win. When we had that little patch, some people, heads a little low but that’s part of the game. Stuff happens.”
Pitching and hitting tend to help one another. When the offense puts runs on the board, there isn’t as much pressure on the pitching staff. Conversely, when the defense is shutting teams down, the offense has time to find its rhythm. Both have been working in tandem over the last couple of weeks for the Raiders.
They’ll need this stretch to last a few more weeks, though, as they enter what could be considered the most crucial stretch of the regular season. The Raiders’ next 12 games are against region opponents, meaning they could have a big impact on whether or not they make the Region XVI Tournament.
“We just have to keep going out there and competing,” Kennedy said. “We’ve just gotta keep playing the game that we know. We work our butts off in the fall, and it all comes down to this. It’s that little patch where you’ve gotta stay conditioned and stay in shape, just keep playing baseball.”
The first task at hand is on the road at No. 16 Crowder for a four-game series. Crowder comes into the series on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Roughriders are 2-4 over their last six games with losses to Connors State and Johnson County and a four-game split with Mineral Area. They fell to No. 16 in the latest NJCAA Division I poll after previously holding the No. 7 spot. Still, Burkey knows his team has a challenge on its hands against a group with a collective batting average over .300.
“We’ll have to play our best games of the year,” Burkey said. “We kind of approach each day and each and every play as the most important games of the year, but as we get closer to the end of the season I guess that’s more and more the case.”
Three Rivers might have to play the series without freshman John Rodriguez, who tweaked his shoulder during a headfirst slide on Tuesday against Williams Baptist. He’s currently day-to-day and was scheduled for an MRI on Friday. Rodriguez is third on the team in hits with 34, tied for fourth in RBIs with 18 and second in batting average at .425.
The first doubleheader against Crowder starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, and the second will begin at noon Monday.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic