By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Unselfishness and toughness are the mantra to live by for the Santa Rosa Junior College baseball team and it has paid off so far this season as the Bear Cubs are 20-2-1 overall and 11-1 in the Big 8 Conference with their sights on big things to come in the next few months.
Before a 4-2 win against Diablo Valley on Saturday, the Bear Cubs were tied for first place in the conference with Sierra College of Rocklin. The Bear Cubs have a three-game series showdown for first place with Sierra on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Two of the three games will be in Rocklin.
“The Big 8 Conference is the best league in Northern California and at times the toughest league in California,” Bear Cubs coach Damon Neidlinger said. “You have to stay focused with each game. In this league there is not time for looking down the road.”
Although a stellar won-lost record often defines success, for Neidlinger the focus is about getting his players to think about team first and have mental toughness, especially when adversity sets in.
“To be in the position we are in right now you have to play successful baseball on all sides,” said Neidlinger, who is in his 11th year as head coach and 18th year involved with Bear Cubs baseball. “The guys are working very efficiently and very hard. They believe in what they are doing.”
Indeed, the hard work put in during practice in combination with a talented group of players with good team chemistry translates to wins and some eye-popping statistics.
Coming into Saturday’s game, SRJC’s pitching staff had a remarkable 1.95 team earned-run average compared to 4.54 for opponents versus the Bear Cubs. The core SRJC starting pitching rotation of Bryan Webster, Tyler Sanders, Jason Alexander and Brian Bynum are a combined 14-1.
On the offensive side, SRJC has a team batting average of .269 compared to .216 for opponents. SRJC has a .347 slugging percentage compared to .244 for opponents. Infielder Brent Gillespie leads SRJC in hitting with a team-high .355 average and 21 RBIs to go along with the Bear Cubs only homer of the season.
“We have a good defense, great pitching and solid defense,” said freshman SRJC catcher Spencer Neve, who played prep ball at Petaluma. “Yeah, we are talented but we work really hard in practice and we are pretty humble players.”
Neve is one of 23 players on the 31-man roster who played high school ball in the Redwood Empire. Neve calls all the pitches for the Bear Cubs hurlers, which is unusual for a catcher at the junior college level.
“Neve is really smart and he knows what he is doing back there. We trust him completely,” said Sanders, who played at Rancho Cotate. “We just jell so easily, which is probably one of the reasons we are doing so well this season. We just mesh.”
Sanders is one of the aces on the staff with a 1.34 ERA and 3-0 record with three saves. Sanders stymies opposing hitters with off-speed offerings to complement an average fastball.
“Tyler isn’t the hardest throwing guy in the world, so he has to throw a lot of off-speed pitches early in the count,” Neve said. “He is having a lot of success in the Big 8.”
“It’s all about location,” Sanders said.
Two key games — one a win and one a loss — symbolize the toughness and resiliency of the Bear Cubs.
In the season’s eighth game the Bear Cubs trailed at Reedley College 8-2 going into the ninth inning. SRJC rallied for 10 runs in the inning for a 12-8 win.
“That was a crazy game, we battled back,” Neve said. “We aren’t the kind of team that is going to give up. That game definitely shows that.”
Neidlinger stressed that the Bear Cubs are not a team with a couple of star players but a roster full of individuals who put the team ahead of themselves, such as Neve and Spencer.
“Sanders is a very unselfish guy. He epitomizes this team,” Neidlinger said. “Neve is a quiet leader.”
The other symbolic game was a 4-3 home loss to Sacramento City College on March 21, when the Bear Cubs committed an uncharacteristic nine errors. Despite all the miscues, SRJC hung in the game and had a chance to win in the late innings. After the loss the Bear Cubs didn’t dwell on the nine-error performance and went on to win three close games in the following week.
“There are some things in sports that you can’t necessarily explain, and that (nine errors) is one of them,” Neidlinger said. “Once things go in the wrong direction that is when you have to implement calmness and composure in the face of adversity.”
Neidlinger’s style of leadership is no-nonsense and focus, and his team is responding to it.
“Coach is definitely intense,” Neve said. “But really we are just like him in that we expect a lot out of each other.”
“He preaches toughness,” Tyler said. “That’s how you win games.”
What will the end destination be for SRJC — a Big 8 Conference title and perhaps a repeat of 2005 when the Bear Cubs won the state championship?
“I’m not going to comment on expectations,” Neidlinger said with a chuckle, but “this has been a team that every day has gotten the job done. They understand the grind of baseball and what it takes to be successful.”