March 30-31 at John L. Harvey Field
The Scenic West Athletic Conference baseball season has yet to reach its midpoint, but a lot will be riding on a four-game series between Western Nevada College and Salt Lake Community College on Friday-Saturday, March 30-31 in Carson City.
Only two wins separate the top-two SWAC clubs as they jockey for first place and the right to host the Region XVIII tournament May 9-13. Western Nevada has the best winning average in the SWAC at .875 with its 14-2 record, while Salt Lake is next at .857 with its 12-2 mark.
Little distinguishes the teams in the pitching and hitting departments. Both clubs have team earned run averages below 2.00 and team batting averages in excess of .300.
"Their program is making strides, and they are beginning to contend, so it's going to be a fun series," said WNC Coach D.J. Whittemore. "The thing to be concerned of with Salt Lake is their team speed. They are very athletic, and they put a lot of pressure on you on the bases."
The Bruins have stolen 74 bases in 87 attempts, with Dominique Taylor leading the way 18. By comparison, WNC has swiped 40 bases in 49 tries.
A rivalry is developing between the programs because of their success and competitive games. WNC won the SWAC regular-season title last year, but Salt Lake came out of the losers' bracket to win the region championship from the Wildcats at WNC.
"There's no doubt with the way the league is shaping up, this is going to be a fun weekend, as well as the weekend at the end of the year," said Salt Lake Coach David Nelson, whose club is 17-35 all-time against WNC, including 9-12 the past two years. "With how well Western Nevada is coached and how hard they compete, it makes for a fun weekend."
WNC's program has a more storied history, with the Wildcats having won three conference titles and two Western District titles and appearing twice in the JUCO World Series.
"Any time, no matter what league you are in, the top two teams are going to have a rivalry," Whittemore said. "It's always fun to play good teams."
Both teams are ranked in the top 20 of the National Junior College Athletic Association poll, WNC 9th and Salt Lake 18th, as well as by Perfect Game top 50 poll, WNC 9th and the Bruins 13th. Each team has modest win streaks going. WNC has won six in a row compared to Salt Lake's five-game streak.
Runs figure to be scarce in the series.
WNC's Dylan Baker brings a 7-0 record and 0.25 earned run average into the conference showdown. But Western Nevada's pitching goes much deeper than the strike-pounding Baker. Matt Robertson (2-1, 0.95 ERA), Andrew Woeck (4-1, 1.17), Tyler Spencer (5-1, 1.91) and Anthony Consiglio (2-0, 1.93) give Whittemore and pitching coach Jeremy Beard many starting and bullpen options.
The Wildcats have a 1.75 team ERA, but Salt Lake lowered its staff ERA to 1.68 in a recent four-game sweep of Eastern Utah. The Bruins are led by Michael Springer, who has a 3-0 record and 0.39 ERA, and 2011 all-conference performer Tanner Banks (5-0, 1.07). Nelson's arsenal of pitchers with under a 2.00 ERA include Ruddy Acosta (1-0, 0.00), Chris Conran (0-0, 0.00), Justin Rupe (0-1, 1.04), AJ Carman (4-1, 1.25), Rhett Parkinson (3-0, 1.46) and Aaron Robbs (1-1, 1.64).
"Their staff is really good, and there is no question since the league started that they have been playing the best," Nelson said. "Our pitching has been a group effort, and they thrive off each other. They are real competitive, and it's fun to watch."
Whittemore doesn't expect either coach to make any changes in their rotation for this series.
"You can't do something different because you are playing a good team; you have to keep doing what you do well," Whittemore said. "We're not trying any harder to win this week than we were last week."
Each club has nine regulars hitting .300 or better, and the Bruins' .321 team batting average is 18 points better than WNC's .303. Salt Lake's Bryan Howard is hitting .431 with two homers and 19 RBI, and Tyson Popoff is hitting .397 with five doubles, two triples and 22 runs scored. WNC's Dillon Ness and Zach Hendrix counter with .380 and .366 batting averages, respectively. Ness also has a team-leading 33 RBI, and Derrick Pitts has belted seven home runs.
If there is any stat that differentiates the two clubs thus far it is in the fielding department. Salt Lake has a .962 fielding average with 31 errors and 21 double plays while WNC has a .950 fielding average and has committed 51 errors and turned 15 double plays.
"We can still improve defensively," Whittemore said. "We have had a lot of injuries this year."
Injuries to three center fielders and the left side of the infield have hobbled four starters for much of the season. Pappin returned to center field in the CSI series, but shortstop Chris Woolley and Alex Schmidt are working their way back into the lineup.
"When we get these guys back in the lineup, defensively, we are going to be just fine," Whittemore said.
The teams will also meet in a regular-season-ending four-game series in Salt Lake on May 4-5. There is added incentive at the region tournament this spring as the Region XVIII champion will host the Western District Tournament May 17-20. But first things first, the four games in Carson City.
"It's going to be whoever shows up and executes the best," Nelson said. "We're trying to get better every week. We have a long ways to go." Added Whittemore, "We have a confident bunch, and they take a lot of pride in their preparation. They have very high expectations, so we are going to go out and play every pitch, and it will be fun to see where we stack up."
The teams square off Friday-Saturday, March 30-31, noon and 2 p.m., at John L. Harvey Field, WNC Carson City.
Press Release: March 28, 2012
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