GATOR-AID: Pitching the key as San Jacinto makes 22nd appearance
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, San Jac is back.
San Jacinto College-North (Texas) will make its 22nd — and third consecutive — appearance at the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series after four convincing wins at the Southern District tournament.
The Gators have won 12 of their past 13 games dating to the end of April and had five shutouts in that span, including a pair of 1-0 victories. Although San Jacinto has its share of great hitters, pitching makes this team go.
Nationally, two of the top 15 strikeout totals came from San Jac pitchers. Right-hander MacGregor Hines is fifth in the NJCAA with 115 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings, posting a 10-3 record in 15 starts with a 3.40 ERA. Kaleb Roper, another right-hander, is tied for 11th nationally with 109 strikeouts in 75 innings and he sports a 1.56 ERA. Roper hasn’t lost since March 12.
Freshman lefty Jacob Cantleberry has a lower strikeout total, but has 1.82 ERA. The Gators’ fourth starter, Hunter McClellan, has a 0.85 ERA despite averaging less than one strikeout per inning.
San Jacinto coach Tom Arrington said most will remember Devin Smeltzer’s 20-strikeout performance during last year’s tournament, as well as strong outings from Cody Nesbit and Colten Schmidt.
It was one of the best pitching staffs the Gators have had, Arrington said, but he and his coaches came to an interesting realization this fall.
“Last year, we had Devin Smeltzer, who was one of the best pitchers in the country and had a remarkable game when he punched out 20 hitters,” Arrington said.
“Guys like Cody Nesbit and Colten Schmidt. It was a really great group. But in the fall this year, I’m sitting with (assistant coaches) Woody (Williams) and Eric (Weaver) and they’re telling me that we might be better than we were last year.
“We work hard with this staff, work with them every day, it’s not just a once-a-week thing. It’s rare that you have a four-man starting rotation that stays together from the beginning of the season until the end. We’re just really excited about that.”
The bullpen isn’t bad, either. Three relievers have sub-1.00 ERAs and roughly one dozen relievers are averaging at least one strikeout per inning.
“We’ve been really fortunate because it can be tough to get all these guys work,” Arrington said. “We have seven-inning games, sometimes nine-inning games, and some run-rule games in there, so it can be hard to get all those arms in, but we’ve managed it. ”
The Gators return only five players from last year’s JUCO team. McClellan made a brief and unsuccessful relief appearance, as did Jerry Maddox. Reliever Patrick Donaho struck out the only batter he faced in Grand Junction last year.
In the field, Tanner Schuetz and Aaron Bond return. Both started one game and appeared in three games for the Gators in the 2016 tournament. Schuetz, in 11 at-bats, notched four hits, including a triple and a double.
This season, Bond is second on the team with seven home runs and Schuetz, although very talented, Arrington said, has had trouble breaking into a stacked outfield.
“Right in the middle of the season last year Tanner Schuetz came on strong and was playing really well, and he had a pretty great tournament,” Arrington said. “This year, he got out-played a little bit early on, and we’ve been trying to get him sparked back up because he really is a tournament player. He’s great in those situations.
“But we’ve just been so competitive this year in the outfield. Aaron Bond has just been on fire this year and Ryan Johnson, a transfer from TCU, has been great. So has Michael Smith. It’s just been a tough outfield to break into.
“We’re loaded with talented guys sitting on the bench and we’re very fortunate for that.”
Freshman Mario Moralez leads the Gators with eight home runs and has a .299 average, one of several big swingers on San Jac’s roster.
Freshman Herbert Iser has MLB scouts buzzing, as does sophomore Wyatt Cross. Cross was a highly touted prep catcher from Broomfield and, after graduating from Legacy High School, fell in the 2015 MLB Draft, eventually being selected in the 33rd round by the Colorado Rockies.
He attended the University of North Carolina for his freshman season, where he had only eight at-bats.
Cross transferred to San Jacinto for his sophomore year, where he’s tied for third on the team with six home runs and has a .250 average. He’s seen time behind the dish and, as part of an experiment that worked out, time on the mound.
“He came into a really hard situation,” Arrington said of Cross. “Very highly talented player with MLB prospects coming out of high school and he chooses to go to one of the premier baseball institutions in the country.
“Initially, he hadn’t really seen a lot of pitches so he was striking out a lot. The ball was clinking off his glove when he was behind the plate. But he’s gotten back into it and he legitimately has one of the best arms in the country and over the course of the final third of our season, he’s been one of our best players.
“Woody, Kory (Koehler), Eric and I were talking about who our most improved player is and it’s got to be Wyatt Cross. Just a fun, respectful, well-mannered kid. Everything you want in a ballplayer.”