Things are falling nicely into gear in Allen Gum’s third season as baseball coach at the University of Central Arkansas.
That’s vital. The Bears are in the fast lane, and the pace picks up this weekend.
Before we survey the territory, let’s evaluate the Bears.
They are ranked No. 24 in NCAA Division I in one national baseball poll, granted not one of the major ones. The University of Arkansas is No. 25 in that same poll.
The Bears are 12-1 (11-0 at home). They lead the Southland Conference in almost every major offensive and defensive category, team and individually.
Their weekend pitching rotation of Caleb McClanahan, Jeffrey Enloe and Bryce Biggerstaff is solid.
They have one of their best defensive teams in the nation, which is exactly how Gum likes it.
He constantly preaches about pitchers pitching to the defense.
“That is basically trust,” he says. “It’s a mindset that the defense behind you can make the plays. So many pitchers get in the mindset that they’ve got to have strikeouts all the time instead of groundouts and flyouts. The strength of our team is defense. We want things to go through that.”
Gum also stretches quality at-bats, making an opposing pitcher have to work for outs and putting as much stress on him as possible with baserunners. The Bears are beating folks with both small ball and big ball.
UCA leads the nation in runs scored, walks, sacrifice bunts and on-base percentage. In other words, the Bears are one of college baseball’s best at administering headaches to a defense.
“I don’t really care how a guy gets on base; I just want him on base,” Gum said. “We want to make a pitcher work from the stretch. Some pitchers are pretty good when they wind up all the time. They are not so good from the stretch.”
Last weekend, the Bears felt really good about a victory over perennial national power Wichita State.
The challenging news is most Southland Conference teams are showing some sharp teeth early. The SLC has consistently proven the last few years that it can compete with and defeat high-profile teams in baseball better than any other sport.
Last weekend, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi swept Dallas Baptist, a perennial power who made an NCAA regional last year. Other skins on the wall for SLC teams are Brigham Young, Saint Louis and Washington. Northwestern State lost 2-1 to Texas A&M. Southeastern Louisiana’s Jordan Hymel threw a no-hitter last weekend against Texas Southern, teaming with Biggerstaff to give the league two straight national pitchers of the week.
Evaluating early season college baseball is tricky. Most teams are experimenting with their lineups, particularly pitching — young pitching and pitching rotations.
The Bears’ only loss has been to No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt.
The next three weekends should give a clearer indication where they stand. They have series with Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Oral Roberts, all NCAA playoff teams last year.
“We are playing a lot of quality opponents,” Gum said. “Our conference has jumped to another level. It’s exciting, but it may make my hair go grayer.”
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-1235)