EDWARDSVILLE, IL- With their 5-1 win over South Dakota State on Sunday, in a series that was quickly scheduled for Edwardsville, Illinois, after the tournament to be hosted by Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas, was canceled, the Bradley Braves are off to a 5-1 start to the season.
That record gives them their best start to a campaign since 2015, when they jumped out to a 6-1 record. You may remember that 2015 was a special season for Bradley, as they went 36-21 overall and got into the Louisville Regional as a two seed.
Their showing so far in 2018 includes not only the sweep of SDSU, but also a 2-1 weekend down in Atlanta, where the Braves collected victories over Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State.
What jumps off the stats page right away is the offensive production, and you could certainly see that on display over the weekend. The Braves rapped out 15 hits in their 8-6 win to start the series, and after trailing 2-0 for much of the second game of the series, they collected six of their 11 hits and all four of their runs in the seventh and eighth innings on the way to a 4-2 come-from-behind win.
Sunday’s finale was much of the same. The Braves put at least one runner on in every inning except the third, and scored in four individual innings- two runs in the second inning, and single tallies in the fifth, sixth, and eighth innings. There weren’t any eruptions in any given inning, but there was constant pressure on the SDSU pitching staff and defense.
As a team, through six games, they’re hitting .328/.421/.433, led by sophomore third baseman Brendan Dougherty, who has been on fire since opening day. The Des Moines, Iowa, native is 12-for-21 on the season, good for a .571 batting average, and he’s been incredibly tough to strike out, as he has just one so far.
He was a key catalyst in the team’s best win to date, their 10-7 win over Georgia Tech down in Atlanta, when he went 2-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored. After a solid freshman season that earned him Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors, perhaps Dougherty is on the cusp of taking the next step and becoming an All-MVC player for the Braves.
Beyond Dougherty, Bradley has five other regulars hitting .292 or better in Andy Shadid (.421), who crushed a solo homer well beyond the left field fence on Sunday, Keaton Rice (.375), who got the scoring started in the second inning on Sunday with a two-run single, Luke Shadid (.348), Luke Mangieri (.296), and Derek Bangert (.292), a hitter strong enough that he muscled a single into left field on a swing that snapped the bat straight in half, just like it was made out of wood.
In short, it’s been exactly the type of offensive performance you would expect from a team that brought back just about all of its most productive hitters from last season.
Perhaps it’s more notable, however, that Bradley’s pitching was as good as it was over the three games against SDSU. With a team ERA that pushed 7.00 in 2017, it had to be an area of concern going into the 2018 season, but it was largely smooth sailing this weekend.
On Friday, they got a solid start from Cole Cook, the team’s top returning pitcher from a year ago. He threw six innings, giving up six hits and four runs (three earned) with no walks and six strikeouts in the series-opening win. In the second game, it was the bullpen duo of Alex Gray and Brian Schrimmer who starred, as they combined to throw six shutout innings in relief after starter Mitch Janssen was removed after three innings. On Sunday, it was Sam Lund’s turn. He had eight strikeouts in five innings of work, all while surrounding just three hits and one run. Brooks Gosswein was also outstanding in relief in the finale, throwing three shutout innings with five strikeouts.
“Our pitching has really been solid for the majority of these first six games,” said Bradley head coach Elvis Dominguez. “Our defense has been superb. Those are really the two things. I knew our hitting was going to take a little time to come, but we’ve been able to manufacture some things. I think we’re just playing really good, solid, fundamental baseball right now.”
So far, the starring performances have been from bullpen pitchers, as the quartet of Gosswein, Gray, Schrimmer, and Boby Johnson have combined to throw 25 relief innings this season, giving up ten hits and one earned run along the way. In starting roles, Lund and Cook, in particular, have been solid, with ERAs of 4.50 and 3.38, respectively.
And this is a pitching staff that stands to get a little bit better when the depth is improved, which will help them to be able to better establish roles within the staff.
“We have two guys who are out that won’t be back until next week, so we’re having a lot of guys assume several roles,” Dominguez said. “Once we get going and get some fluidity, they (pitching roles) will be established.”
It’s still very early, and it’s important to note that none of the five wins for Bradley early on have come against teams that were in regionals last season. But again, that’s not altogether different than the quick start the program enjoyed back in 2015, when their first two weekends included wins exclusively against teams that didn’t make a regional that year, like Omaha, North Dakota State, and McNeese State.
For Bradley, the hope is that there will be many more ways in which the 2015 team and this team are alike, and it’s not crazy to think that will be the case.
“This is a special group,” Dominguez said. “They really root for each other. We’ve had four guys in right field, it doesn’t matter. Two guys in left. Three different guys at second. It really is just a very unselfish group. It reminds me a lot of that (2015) group, by the way.”