Cobble: Eagles’ hitting will be key during NCCAA regional

Luke Sandoval is tied for the team lead with five pitching wins this season.
Luke Sandoval is tied for the team lead with five pitching wins this season.

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 6, 2013) – If Oklahoma Christian’s baseball team has established an identity, coach Lonny Cobble said, it’s one of good pitching and solid defense, two things that can carry a team a long way.

But those are only two-thirds of the equation in building a winning program. The aim of the game is to score more runs than the other team and Cobble said the Eagles still are developing in that area entering the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region tournament, which OC will host starting Tuesday at Dobson Field.

OC (22-22) will play Central Baptist (Ark.) in the tournament opener at 3 p.m., with the winner to face top-seeded Ecclesia (Ark.) at 7 p.m. The double-elimination tournament has two games scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and an if-necessary game set for 3 p.m. Thursday.

The winner will advance to the NCCAA Championship in Mason, Ohio, from May 15-18. Cobble said the Eagles will advance as far in the postseason as their bats will take them.

“If we hit, we’ll win it,” Cobble said. “Pitching and defense haven’t been a problem for us.

“I think the guys are fired up. They’re excited about having the opportunity to be in the postseason. It’s a good opportunity.”

The Eagles feature five capable starters in Cale Coshow (3-3, 4.02 ERA), Tyler Sturges (4-4, 3.78 ERA), Kelby Reneau (2-4, 4.15 ERA), Luke Sandoval (5-1, 2.96 ERA) and Brock Werdel (3-4, 3.99 ERA), as well as arguably the top closer in the NCCAA in Chris Burgess (5-0, eight saves, 1.15 ERA).

OC is averaging 4.6 runs per game, but the Eagles have struggled at times with coming up with the clutch hit. OC is 6-10 in one-run games this season and scored just seven runs in its final four games of the regular season, all losses.

The Eagles have only one player batting above .300 – senior outfielder Dillon Andrews, who leads the Heartland Conference with a .387 average and a .556 slugging percentage. No one on the team ranks in the conference’s top 10 in RBIs, though, and the Eagles have averaged 7.3 runners per game left on base.

OC certainly has the capability of an offensive explosion. Four players – Jordan Lopez (13), Blake Stringer (12), Andrews (11) and Caden Cleveland (10) – each has reached double digits in doubles, with Lopez tied for the conference lead. Markus Carr is second in the Heartland in stolen bases with 24.

“We just have to figure out a way to manufacture runs,” Cobble said. “If we can score four or five runs, we have a chance to win. That’s what our goal needs to be, because … our pitching has been strong.”

The Eagles have faced a mostly NCAA Division II schedule, which should have them prepared for the postseason, Cobble said.

“We’ve played a great schedule,” Cobble said. “It’s been a fun schedule against some really good teams. That’s the way you get better. You have to play those guys. … It brings out the best in our guys.”

OC’s first opponent in the regional, Central Baptist (25-25), finished tied for fourth in the NAIA’s Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference. OC and the Mustangs have played only one common foe this year – York (Neb.). OC beat York 4-3 on Feb. 24, while York took four of five games from CBC late in the season, with two of those wins by double digits.

The Mustangs hit .308 as a team, led by Brady Brashier (.420), Brandon Papera (.343) and Myles Hiebert (.333, 12 home runs). Hiebert ranks sixth in the NAIA in home runs and second in RBIs with 63.

None of CBC’s pitchers have recorded more than three wins.

Ecclesia (24-20) received the top seed for the tournament despite losing three of four games during the regular season against Central Baptist. The Royals and OC had one common opponent in Rogers State. OC beat Rogers State 8-7 on March 15, while Ecclesia lost 7-0 and 6-2 to the Hillcats on Feb. 23.

Ecclesia hits .298 as a team. Randy Montes De Oca is the Royals’ top hitter at .367 with 30 RBIs, while Eckersley Villasmil has a .350 average with 24 RBIs.

Three of the Royals’ pitchers have outstanding strikeout totals. David Torres (4-5) has 69 strikeouts, Marco Blanchard (5-3) has 61 and Justin Southerland (4-5) has 60. Torres’ 1.42 ERA is tops on the Ecclesia staff.

“These are good teams coming in here,” Cobble said. “I’m just glad we get to compete to see what we’re made of. This just sums up the season. The teams that win something like this are the teams that want to be there and still want to be playing. We’ll see if we have guys who want to play or guys who don’t.”