ST. LOUIS, MO- Saint Louis University head coach Darin Hendrickson is willing to admit that his team was in a bad place when they came home from the Alamo Irish Classic in San Antonio after the second weekend of the season.
One year after going 4-0 in that event to start their season, the Billikens were limping home having gone 0-4 on the weekend, after a 1-3 showing the weekend before in the Sunshine State Classic.
“We were in a pretty deep, dark place on the way home from Texas at 1-7,” Hendrickson said. “Last year, we were 7-1 at that time and had won the Irish Classic, and this year, we were 1-7 and going ‘what the heck happened’ with the same lineup (of teams) basically.”
SLU returned home after that trip to prepare to start their home slate with a series against Chicago State, and they haven’t lost since. Most recently, and most impressively, a sweep of Purdue this past weekend ran their winning streak to ten games in a row, the longest current winning streak in college baseball.
The run includes a sweep of Chicago State in that home-opening series, a sweep of Oakland the following weekend, a midweek win over SIU-Edwardsville, and then the sweep of Purdue.
So what’s been the difference?
“The best word that comes to mind is comfortable,” Hendrickson said. “I think we look relaxed and playing at home is certainly everyone’s cup of tea, generally. I think we’re just more comfortable and we quit pressing. We got off to a tough start, you get back home, and you get yourself out of it. That’s the best word I’ve got.”
One constant, even when things weren’t going particularly well for the Billikens, has been the performance of ace Miller Hogan, and that’s certainly nothing new. He was Second Team All-Atlantic 10 last season, and then shined against elite talent on the Cape this past summer, momentum that he has taken into 2018.
Through five starts, he has a 2.33 ERA, a dazzling 36/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .233 opponent batting average. Beyond that, he’s also incredibly consistent in his starts. He’s thrown at least six innings in every start this season. He’s only given up more than two runs in a start once, when he gave up five runs in six innings against Notre Dame. He’s not walked more than two batters in any start, and he’s struck out at least seven in every start except the Notre Dame start.
“His pitchability is where he makes his money now,” Hendrickson said. “He throws four pitches anytime, both sides. He’s got a pretty darn good sinker now that, I think, is taking him to a new level. He knew he had to make a jump to get to the next level and be a true Friday night guy and a potential pro guy, so he worked on that over the summer. The Cape helped him a lot. Anytime a sophomore goes away to the Cape and does well, college coaches are going to be happy when they come back. He’s a very, very smart pitcher, pays attention the game, great student of the game, and it shows in his numbers.”
Speaking of potential pros, an interesting pitcher to watch behind Hogan in the rotation is Jackson Wark. The Alberta, Canada, native was a 30th-round pick of the Mets in the 2015 draft, making him the first Saint Louis signee to be drafted out of high school.
He’s been up and down, not only this season, but throughout his career. He often struggles to keep his pitch counts low enough to go deep into games, but when he has it going, his potential is tantalizing. Back-to-back starts against Chicago State and Oakland showed that.
In the former outing, he threw seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits and one walk with seven strikeouts. In the latter, he threw five shutout innings, allowing two hits and three walks with five strikeouts. For Wark, it’s not about stuff. That’s not a question. It’s more about his ability to be efficient and make pitches in big moments to get out of innings.
Even in starts when Wark (or others) haven’t been able to go deep into games, however, the Billikens have been able to lean on a bullpen that has been a huge strength, and they flexed that muscle again in the Purdue series. In relief of Hogan in game one of the series, the trio of Connor Lehmann, Keith Kutzler, and Tom Bushnell combined to throw three scoreless innings, allowing just one walk along the way.
Behind Wark on Saturday, SLU got great work out of Luke Sommerfeld, who threw four innings, giving up one hit and one unearned run with two walks and five strikeouts. And in the Sunday game, in relief of Drew Reveno, Sean Frontzak threw 2.1 innings, giving up two hits and one unearned run and Nick Logusch close things out with a perfect ninth inning.
To this point, Frontzak (0.00 ERA, 10 IP), Sommerfeld (0.57 ERA, 15.2 IP), Charlie Sheehan (2.53 ERA, 10.2 IP), who started the midweek game against SIUE as well, and Ryan Lefner (4.09 ERA, 11 IP) have all been particularly dependable weapons in relief.
But perhaps the most welcome sight to come out of the Purdue series for Saint Louis was an offense that scored 33 runs in three games after having scored no more than 23 in any other weekend this season.
Jake Garella, the team’s leading hitter, had another big weekend, going 5-for-11 with four RBI and five runs scored. His slash line is up to .338/.364/.437 on the season. Parker Sniatynski, a four-year contributor with a better than .300 career average, hadn’t had the start to the season he would have hoped for, including a tough 1-for-15 weekend down in San Antonio, but perhaps his weekend against Purdue will get him going. He went 5-for-13 over the three games.
The breakout offensive star from the weekend, though, has to be Carter Hanford. In the opener, he not only walked four times, but he made the most of his one official at-bat by connecting for a home run. And in the finale, after a 1-for-5 performance in the middle game of the series, he went 2-for-4, including an absolute laser of a home run out to left field, tying him for the team lead in home runs, with James Morisano, with three.
All of that is to say nothing of Aaron Case, who went 3-for-3 in the series opener with a home run, Alex King, who drove in four runs in the opening game, Nick Reeser, who went 2-for-4 in the first game with a home run and then followed that up with a 3-for-4 performance in the middle game, and Ryan Hernandez, who connected for his first home run of the season in the series opener.
Suffice it to say that it was a team effort on offense.
“I thought we stayed on the gas for 27 innings,” Hendrickson said. “I don’t think we took any time off. I’m really proud of our tenaciousness and grittiness. We didn’t have that earlier in the year. We had easy outs and we were leaving guys out there.”
Now, SLU’s challenge is to stay on the gas as they move into Atlantic 10 play and head back out on the road, beginning this weekend with a series at Saint Joseph’s. Certainly the Billikens hope that the comforts of home over the last few weeks have set themselves up to play well away from it.