Posted By Press Democrat Staff Writer Michael Coit:
What a difference a week makes with Santa Rosa Junior College getting back into the baseball playoff picture – what the Bear Cubs expected coming into the season.
Three straight wins have moved Santa Rosa into one of the Big 8 Conferences likely postseason spots. Yet the Bear Cubs recognize they must continue to pitch well and get timely hits and win to make the Nor Cal playoffs and possibly a run at the California junior college title.
“We’re back on track. There’s not much time left,” said center fielder Jayce Ray, from Sonoma Valley High. “The goal is to win state, but right now you just have to win the next game.”
Santa Rosa – 9-9 in conference and 18-14 overall — hosts Modesto today and goes there Thursday. The regular season finale is at Sacramento City College April 29.
“It is a pretty crucial stretch. It’s not exactly the way we chalked it up in the beginning of the year, but that’s the way it’s shaking out,” said top pitcher Jon Flinn, from Cardinal Newman.
A strong start confirmed Santa Rosa’s high expectations. Then a rough stretch of league play had the Bear Cubs staring at not even making the regional playoffs, an annual measuring stick for the program.
Despite being the conference’s third best hitting team, Santa Rosa was losing too many close games. Bear Cubs pitchers are second in the league in earned run average, yet have lacked depth to close out contests.
“It gets a little frustrating. But you’ve got to get up the next day and get after it,” said coach Damon Neidlinger. “They’ve worked hard. I’ve loved coaching them.”
Breaking out the bats and getting good pitching outings has carried Santa Rosa during its winning streak.
“The last few games we’ve really done a good job,” Flinn said.
A pair of wins over Sacramento City last week were critical to the Bear Cubs turn around as Santa Rosa leapfrogged Sacramento City in the conference standings. Santa Rosa won a tight game at home and then gained a decisive win on the road.
Still, playing in the state’s second toughest baseball conference means the Bear Cubs have more work to do if they hope to reach the postseason.
“There’s no game that you go into saying that we’ve got it. Any team can beat anybody,” Ray said.
A handful of former Empire prep standouts have played big roles in Santa Rosa’s success this season.
Leadoff hitter Ray is third in the conference in hitting, leads in runs scored and is near the top in most batting categories.
“He was a good player last year and is a great player this year. He works hard,” Neidlinger said.
Playing through a nagging right hand strain, Ray has been a catalyst for Santa Rosa’s offense.
“If I jump on a guy and get a hit, it pumps up the whole team,” Ray said. “I’m just trying to be mentally focused every pitch of every game.”
Also making Santa Rosa strong up the middle is shortstop Nick Rodda, from Piner High. Rodda is third in the conference in runs batted in and sixth in scoring.
“He’s played well and played in every game,” Neidlinger said.
A backbone for Santa Rosa has been Donald Walter, a right fielder from De La Salle High. Another clutch hitter, Walter is among the conference leaders in runs batted in and steals.
“He’s one of the best team guys I’ve ever coached. He has an absolute iron will to try and will this team to wins,” Neidlinger said.
Flinn is the ace on a pitching staff among the stingiest in the state.
“He has a great changeup. He locates well. He’s continued to develop into a very good pitcher,” Neidlinger said.
Hitters have the lowest batting average against Flinn who also tops the conference for innings pitched, is third in strikeouts and complete games.
“It’s one pitch at a time, trying to get every batter out. Twe whole pitching staff just wants to give our team a chance to win,” Flinn said. “It’s starting to go our way again.”