Blue-collar Spartanburg rolls back into JUCO
There’s nothing flashy or spectacular about the Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College baseball team.
The Pioneers don’t tout superstar players or lure top prospect players from out of state, but they play hard and win.
“We always get the same kind of kids,” SMC coach and athletic director Tim Wallace said. “We’re a private, liberal arts institution. It’s smoke and mirrors to get kids in here sometimes, but we have a great reputation.
“We have South Carolina kids. They have a blue-collar mentality and plug away.”
The prime example might be Marty Gantt, who led Spartanburg on the 2009 JUCO World Series team and received the Homa Thomas Sportsmanship Award.
Gantt, who was born without fully developed fingers on his right hand, is now at NCAA Division I College of Charleston. He was recently selected the Southern Conference player of the year and is on the Golden Spikes award watch list given to the top amateur player in the nation.
Wallace, who is in his 21st season, has been successful with that type of players. Spartanburg is making its seventh JUCO World Series appearance and fifth in the past 12 years.
“We don’t talk about (the JUCO World Series) a lot,” Wallace said. “That’s always our goal. We tell the guys to play the best you can. Once you win the region, (the players) don’t understand what position you put yourself in. For most of these players, this will be the highlight of their career.”
Before the team takes the field, former Spartanburg coach Lon Joyce, who led the Pioneers to two World Series appearances, will be inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
“I talked early in the year when he found out, and said it would be great if we come out,” Wallace said. “He recruited me, but I didn’t play for him. I’ve worked clinics for him. I’m thrilled we’re out there with him.”
The Pioneers (45-16) are led by Bruce Caldwell this season.
The freshman is hitting .444 with 26 doubles, 15 home runs and 66 RBI — in the leadoff spot.
“We were trying to hit him in the three-hole, but he does more for us in the leadoff spot,” Wallace said. “We go as Caldwell goes and he’s going well. Of his 91 hits, 45 are for extra bases. He gets things started for us.”
The two- through four-hole hitters were plagued by injuries this season, but Wallace said, they have settled into their roles.
“I have to figure out best place for people, position and lineup,” he said. “Once you get the pieces in what you think is the right place the players have to buy into what you’re doing.”
Second baseman Wil Leathers is hitting .368 in the two hole. He missed several games with a pulled hamstring. David Donald is hitting .399 with 10 home runs and 53 RBI in 49 games in the three hole. He’s missed 11 games with injuries. He split his cheek open running into a fence to make a catch. He hit three of his 10 home runs in two Eastern District tournament games last weekend.
The No. 4 hitter, Robbie Dodds, missed the start of the season and is hitting .299 with 38 RBI in 52 games.
“He’s a vocal kid,” Wallace said. “He wants to work the clinic. He’ll talk to himself. He’ll be the Pied Piper out there.”
Ben Boykin delivered some clutch hits for the Pioneers in the fifth spot.
Seth Neely is hitting .337 with three home runs and 34 RBI. He started the season in the third spot in the batting order, but moved to seventh with the return of several key players from injuries.
The pitching staff is led by freshman Jonathon Pulley (4-3, 3.97 ERA), Alex Pridemore (7-0, 1.98 ERA) and Jimmy Lindberg (5-1, 1.68 ERA).
“Pulley doesn’t have a great record, but he’s the guy we’ve been running Game 1,” Wallace said. “He was a high draft pick. Scouts are lining up to watch him. He’s a local kid in Spartanburg.”
“Pridemore doesn’t have a lot of strikeouts, but he gets a lot of outs. Lindberg is a lefty college coaches dread. He pitches in the low- to mid-80s, but throws his breaking balls for strikes.”
The bullpen is anchored by Cody Mincey (5-2, 2.74 ERA, 2 saves) and Hunter Rice (2-2, 1.93 ERA, 4 saves).
Spartanburg rolled through its nonconference schedule, going 15-2, but was swept in its opening four-game weekend conference series by S.C.-Lancaster.
“We started well and dealt with some issues off the field, but a couple injuries can change the lineup,” Wallace said. “Once we got the pieces together, we played well.
“I thought we had a good club when we started.”