by Mike Williams
Missouri College Media Award: Honorable Mention, Sports Column
The Longview Lakers men’s baseball team begins their quest for a title–weather permitting–on February 12 at Northern Oklahoma. The journey to the ultimate prize, though, will be different this year. A new playoff format awaits the Lakers in the 2011 season.
If the Lakers post a .500 record or better, they will qualify for the playoffs. They would then face the district winners in Oklahoma and Kansas. A two-game, double-elimination round-robin will be played to decide who goes to the World Series.
Not everything about the new system is positive, according to head coach Clint Culbertson. Last year’s system “gave us a chance to try new things in the lineup and get other guys in,” he said. “This year we need to win 28 games. It definitely puts pressure on us to win.”
Though challenges certainly lie ahead, optimistic buzz surrounds the club the season, with several players stating they would have made the playoffs this year, with or without the new system. One player who looks to help the Lakers is sophomore first basemen Ryan Rohmiller. In just 63 at bats last spring, Rohmiller had 20 hits and drove in 16 runs. He said he goes in to each at bat with a definitive game plan.
“Usually, I’m looking for a fastball middle-in, but it depends on the guys ahead of me and what the pitcher has already shown,” he said. “With two strikes, I’m looking for off-speed or trying to take the fast ball through the right side.”
Rohmiller, who calls defense the strength of his game, recorded 71 put outs without recording an error. He also got valuable post season experience last season when the roster was reshaped due to illness and injury.
One player who did a little bit of everything for the Lakers last year is shortstop Kyle Thornton. Kyle hit .301 last year, chipping in 13 RBIs and touching home plate 22 times. Thornton has even made his way to the mound throwing seven innings last spring.
“We looked at him out of high school as both a pitcher and an infielder,” Culbertson explained. “Last year we just needed him more at short.” This year Thornton will be asked to throw more innings. He can throw four different pitches for strikes: a fastball, curveball, cutter and an acquired pitch from Culbertson called a “splink” round out his arsenal.
“I hit my spots well and keep hitters off-balance, I’m more of a pitch to contact guy than a strike out guy,” Thornton said. His strikeout ability may be better than he realizes, with five strikeouts in the seven innings he threw last season.
Culbertson described last year’s 1-5 hitters as the best he’d ever had at Longview, but expects this year’s 1-9 hitters to be even better. Two guys who will help bolster that lineup will be returning sophomores Kyle Simpson, who was all-district last year, and Shawn Egge, who last year set the single-season home run record for the Longview Lakers.