SRJC baseball: Bear Cubs grinding it out in Big 8 conference

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Dane Erbst lays down a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning against Cosumnes River College on Thursday. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Dane Erbst lays down a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning against Cosumnes River College on Thursday. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Stretching, strengthening and drilling, Santa Rosa Junior College baseball players worked to improve minutes after an extra-inning defeat, capturing the difficulty of playing in California’s toughest conference.

Making the most of scoring opportunities often is the difference in the Big 8 Conference as Santa Rosa was reminded in the 3-2 home loss Thursday to Cosumnes River. Three times, the Bear Cubs stranded the potential go-ahead run with less than two outs, and they left the tying run in scoring position in the decisive 11th inning.

Santa Rosa pitchers kept the strong Hawks lineup largely in check. The winning run scored on a rare Bear Cubs error with the bases loaded.

“Our biggest focus is just scoring enough runs to support our pitchers. It’s coming around,” said catcher Spencer Neve, out of Petaluma High. “We’re just trying to win games.”

Despite the frustrating defeat, Santa Rosa is back in the hunt for a strong conference finish and state playoff run.

“We’re competing for a conference championship and then you get into the playoffs and make some noise,” said former Piner standout Matt LoCoco. “We’ve showed glimpses of the type of game we’re capable of. We haven’t put it together enough.”

Expectations always are high for the perennial state title contenders. SRJC won the California Community College Athletic Association title in 2005 and reached the final four in 2013.

After opening this season with a dozen wins against two losses, Santa Rosa hit a bump in the road back to the state playoffs. Losing four of five to open conference play had the Bear Cubs scratching to regain momentum.

Santa Rosa then won four of five before Thursday’s defeat.

“Conference was a little bit of a wakeup call. It was just an adjustment that took us a little longer than we wanted,” Neve said.

Pitching has been strong throughout the campaign with SRJC allowing less than two runs a game. Brandon Hagerla (Petaluma High) ranks among conference leaders in wins. Brett Obranovich, from Napa High, and Kyle Mitchell, from Vintage High, also have been stellar sharing starting duties.

Primary relievers JJ Jamerson, out of Cardinal Newman, and closer Anthony Bender, from Casa Grande, have been steady. The staff’s depth was clear Thursday with Vijay Patel, from Maria Carrillo, shutting down Cosumnes River after taking over from Hagerla in the seventh inning.

“They’ve been holding down a lot of strong teams,” Neve said.

The common thread of success for Santa Rosa pitchers has been throwing strikes and mixing speeds to keep hitters off balance. Santa Rosa’s staff does not blow away opponents, trusting an equally stingy defense.

Strong up the middle, Santa Rosa’s defense is anchored by returning starters Chase Stafford, the second baseman from Casa Grande, and LoCoco in centerfield.

“Our defense is solid all the way around,” LoCoco said. “We’re competitive, sharp and ready for game day.”

While not among the strongest hitting teams, the Bear Cubs typically get the job done with their bats. On the season, Santa Rosa averages more than four runs a game, nearly double the Bear Cubs’ opponents.

In conference play, the Bear Cubs are even with Big 8 rivals in runs scored, reflecting the narrow margin between victory and defeat.

“You have to play the game well to compete in this conference,” said coach Damon Neidlinger.

Such was the lesson in Thursday’s defeat.

Santa Rosa took the early lead on a rare home run, a two run shot to left center from Bender, playing third base.

Then SRJC put runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the fifth, eighth and ninth innings. Santa Rosa combined walks and a hit batter with sacrifice bunts and the occasional hit to generate threats. But the key hit eluded the hosts.

Giving the Bear Cubs a taste of their own gritty play, Cosumnes River combined two hit batters, a walk and error on a slow roller to push across the winning run.

Battling back, SRJC put runners on with a single by Mike Reynolds, from Cloverdale, and a walk. The rally ended on a double-play grounder.

A day earlier Santa Rosa shut out Cosumnes River on the road.

“We beat them there, but you’ve got to come back strong the next day,” Neidlinger said.

Teams that compete for the conference title win their share of the three-game series that make up the schedule.

So far Santa Rosa has played winning ball on the road in the Big 8, but needs to turn around their fortunes at home.

Winning in the Big 8 often assures squads of a state playoff berth. With the conference looking to get six teams into the postseason, Santa Rosa is right there in the middle of the pack.

“We’ve worked hard enough for it,” Neve said. “We’ve just got to go out and do it.”

 

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