Worth the sacrifice

Ability to play small ball will help Mavs at regionals

Colorado Mesa’ Braden Box lays down a bunt during a recent game. Box has 11 sacrifice bunts on the season as the Mavs have continued their transformation from a team that relies on home runs to one that relies on speed and moving runners over. Mesa plays New Mexico Highlands on Thursday in Mankato, Minn.


NCAA Central Regional

CMU (39-14) vs. N.M. Highlands(39-14), 11 a.m. (MDT), Thursday, Mankato, Minn.

Notes: Garrett Carpenter said his level of pain in his forearm was “zero” in a short workout Tuesday at Bergman Field. Hanks said he’ll likely start later in the series. Nolan Snell has tightness in his right shoulder, but will likely start the second or third game. Jared Christensen will start against Highlands, Hanks said. The Mavericks are making their 10th NCAA tournament appearance in Hanks’ 14 years, their fourth consecutive.

Braden Box knows how to make things happen.

The Colorado Mesa University junior has never hit a home run, but the No. 2 hitter is batting .398 with a .471 on-base percentage. Box leads the team in sacrifice hits with 11 and in stolen bases with 30.

“He is the Energizer bunny,” CMU coach Chris Hanks said. “You can’t outlast him. He has incredible passion for the game. He’s the little engine that thought he could. He wants to win really bad.”

Box, a junior college transfer who made the team at a tryout mainly for high school players in the fall of 2010, can create havoc for opposing pitchers and defenses. If he is successful in the NCAA Division II Central Regional, the Mavericks could be going to their second Division II World Series in school history.

“Since I was kid I always relied on bunting and doing that sort of stuff to benefit the team,” Box said. “I think recently with the change in bats, our team has to rely more on the line drive and the small ball aspect because these guys don’t have the pop to put it out of the ballpark.

“At this point in the year, you’ll see a bunch of one-, two-run ballgames. Those are won with small ball. That’s one thing we’ve worked hard on this year.”

No. 26 Colorado Mesa (39-14) plays New Mexico Highlands (39-14) in the first round of the double-elimination regional at 11 a.m. (MDT) Thursday at Franklin Rodgers Park in Mankato, Minn. The eighth-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (44-10) host the regional.

Mesa has been one of the top offensive teams in Division II in Hanks’ 14 years, but in recent years, the Mavericks are producing more runs with sacrifices and stolen bases than doubles and home runs.

Mesa is 24th in sacrifice bunts (53), 12th in sacrifice flies (31) and 23rd in stolen bases (105) this season. The school record for stolen bases is 113.

The Mavs have more than 50 bunts for base hits, something Hanks and his staff have been tracking this season.

“We started to make the transformation from grip it and rip it, I want to say, in ‘05,” Hanks said. “We just came off the ‘04 regional. We set the national record for doubles. We were in the top three in all the offensive categories, yet it didn’t produce a World Series berth.

“We’ve got to be able to bunt the ball, draw the infield in to open up more holes. We started the process of recruiting more speed, working diligently on bunting every day. The idea being, we want to be able to manufacture runs. When we say execute the game, that’s what we mean.”

Hanks has gone so far as coming up with an acronym reflecting the Mavs’ philosophy: M-E-S-A.

Manufacture runs, Execute the game, Smother your opponent with Aggressive play.

“We have actually won more games and advanced further more often since we’ve gone to that style,” Hanks said. “Our strikeout numbers have gone down since 2004. When we used to hit for the power numbers, we ranged from 5½ to 6½ strikeouts per game. As of today (this season), we’re averaging 4.1 per game.

“This is our best short game ever. Our batting average is still good. Our power numbers aren’t as extravagant in terms of home runs and doubles, but we have more base runners, which forces more complications for the defense.”

That began with moving a runner from first to second with a bunt instead of hoping the batter would hit a home run or at least a double.

Mesa, which averages less than one home run per game, will need to produce runs to win the regional. Mankato and No. 10 St. Cloud State (45-12) are the top-ranked teams in the region in earned run average and fielding percentage. Mankato opens with Regis (32-21) and St. Cloud plays Winona State (29-20) in the first round.

All-Regional: Three Colorado Mesa players made the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Central Region first team, seniors Dustin Fackrell, Jeff Popick and Jared Christensen.

Box and junior pitcher Nolan Snell made the second team. Senior relief pitcher Derek Benham was an honorable mention pick.


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