Spartanburg rules: Team overcomes early trouble on way to GJ
Spartanburg Methodist College (South Carolina) was darn lucky or darn deep.
Or both, most likely with a little of the former and a lot of the latter helping the Pioneers (46-16) earn a berth in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series for the third year in a row.
When Pioneers baseball coach Tim Wallace, who also is the college’s athletic director, suspended 13 of his players for a month for failing to follow team rules, his principled stand could have been devastating.
Instead, the Pioneers persevered with 10 position players and six pitchers available to play, and one month later, Spartanburg had lost only four games during the suspensions.
That was the first big challenge the Pioneers had to overcome on their way back to Grand Junction for the ninth time in the program’s history.
Then came a lackluster finish to the regular season and the Region X tournament.
“The last 15 games we’ve been very average,” Wallace said, speculating his players might have been tired, and the semester was coming to an end with final exams.
And after getting eliminated from the regional in an 11-2 loss to the University of South Carolina-Sumter, Wallace employed another tactic.
“I sent them home for four days, told them I don’t care if you touch a baseball,” Wallace said. “After that loss in the region tournament on Tuesday, I told them, ‘I don’t want to see you until Sunday at 5 (p.m.).’ “
The break paid off. The Pioneers lost their second-round game by one run to USC-Sumter in the Eastern District tournament, but they were a spirited bunch thereafter.
Spartanburg beat Harford Community College 4-3 on a walk-off wild pitch Saturday night, then nipped Sumter 5-4 Sunday morning with a home run in the 10th inning to force a second game against Sumter for the district title Sunday afternoon. The Pioneers took a 5-0 lead after four innings and held on for a 7-2 win and the World Series berth.
As if the World Series wasn’t tough enough to win with a completely healthy team, the Pioneers will have to try to bring Spartanburg its first national title without its pitching ace.
Sophomore Dylan Rogers, who has a 10-2 record, 2.93 ERA and a team-high 76 2/3 innings pitched, threw a gem in the Pioneers’ district-opening 4-2 win over Harford. He went 8 2/3 innings, allowing two hits and two walks, and struck out 12.
“It was probably his best outing of his career,” Wallace said.
But Spartanburg learned a couple of days later that their No. 1 pitcher likely tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and is done for the season.
“He ideally would have thrown Sunday night,” Wallace said, referring to Spartanburg’s World Series opener against Miami Dade.
Now the Pioneers must adjust, and Wallace said his team can still run “some pretty good arms” out to the mound, “just not the one up at the top.”
They proved that in the district title game when freshman CD Pelham, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound lefty with a fastball in the 93- to 95-mph range, shut down Sumter. Pelham will get drafted in June, Wallace said.
Spartanburg’s pitchers are going to need some run support, and Wallace said the Pioneers’ hitters, who are batting .313 on the season, showed signs of life in the district tourney.
And maybe Spartanburg will take to Colorado’s rare air the way it did a year ago. The Pioneers entered last year’s World Series with a mere 12 home runs, then hit five at Suplizio Field.
Second baseman Matt White leads the team with a .373 batting average and is second among the Pioneers with 54 runs and third with 45 RBI.
Sophomore first baseman Collin Steagall has belted a team-best 10 home runs and is second in RBI with 47, trailing only the 53 by sophomore Jordan Garrett, who hit the game-winning home run in the 10th against Sumter.
When the Pioneers get on base, they have some speed with White, Wesley Rogers, Zach Shields and Brandon Burris each stealing more than 20 bases. Shields leads the way with 34 steals.
Wallace also hopes experience, particularly in last year’s World Series, means something. Five of his sophomores either were starters or played quite a bit in Grand Junction.
With this being Wallace’s seventh time coaching a team in the World Series, he’s seen what wins titles. He acknowledges so many unknowns lurk in the 10-team World Series field, but one thing consistently surfaces among the champions.
“It’s the teams that do the little things,” Wallace said. “Do that, you’ll have some success.”