College of Charleston second baseman Blake Butler had all summer to think about last year’s Lubbock Super Regional.
The Cougars pitching staff did their part, allowing just a single run in back-to-back 1-0 losses to Texas Tech in the Lubbock Super Regional. The Cougars were four runs, or a couple of swings of the bat, away from going to their first College World Series.
In two games against the Red Raiders, the Cougars had just nine hits and couldn’t manage to push a single run cross the plate.
It’s something Butler and the rest of the Cougar position players stewed over all summer.
“You win as a team and you lose as a team, but we just didn’t get the job done at the plate,” said Butler, who is hitting .333 and has a 20-game hitting streak to his credit this season. “Our pitching was amazing against Texas Tech. They did everything they were supposed to do and we didn’t pick ’em up. That’s on us. We were the reason that we didn’t go to Omaha (site of College World Series). I think the guys came back really focused and ready to work every day to get better so that wouldn’t happen again this season.”
The results at the plate have been nothing short of mind-boggling for the Cougars. In 2014, Charleston’s offense was anemic, at best. The Cougars had a team batting average of .255, which ranked 228th nationally. The Cougars were ranked 166th in scoring (4.8 rpg), 52nd in home runs per game (.57) and 130th (.366) in slugging percentage.
As the Cougars enter this weekend’s three-game series with Hofstra, Charleston is among the top-hitting clubs in the country. The Cougars are better in every major statistical hitting category. Their batting average of .306 is 50 points higher than last year and ranked 12th nationally. Charleston is 22nd in scoring (7.2 rpg), seventh in home runs per game (1.12) and sixth in slugging percentage (.480).
“We knew we needed to get better offensively this year,” said College of Charleston coach Monte Lee. “I think the guys that played last year that are back have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders. We didn’t score as many runs as we needed too or should have, especially during the most critical time of the season. It showed up in the Super Regional. If we had scored a few more runs, who knows, we might have been playing in the College World Series. I think that was a tough pill to swallow for the guys that were coming back this year.”
For hitters like Butler, outfielder Champ Rowland and shortstop Morgan Phillips, the turnaround at the plate from last year has been startling. Phillips has seen the most improvement, going from hitting a meager .247 last year to leading the team with a .361 average. Butler (.282 to .333) and Rowland (.228 to .289) also have seen major progression at the plate.
“I think hitting is contagious,” Butler said. “I think when one guy or a couple of guys get going, then everyone gets that little extra confidence and has a quality at-bat.”
And it’s not like the Cougars were forced to overhaul their lineup from a year ago. Six of the nine every-day position players are back in the lineup from last year’s team.
“I give the players that were here last year a lot of credit for how they’ve worked this season,” Lee said. “I think the guys have had a great approach every day. It’s about the process and not the immediate result. We had a lot of guys that got a lot of experience last year and have another year under their belt. That’s just a maturation process. Those guys are a year older, a year smarter and a year stronger and that’s important.”
Lee said he could see early on during fall practice that the Cougars were going to be better at the plate.
“You could see how focused the guys were in the fall,” Lee said. “Our consistency and the quality of our at-bats we had in the fall really made me think we’d have a pretty good hitting team. I could see that we were going to be better. A lot of the credit needs to go to Chris Morris, our hitting coach, he’ done a really, really good job of working with these guys and developing them. Our guys have really bought into what Chris is teaching.”
Charleston has needed every run they could muster this season after losing two of their top weekend starters. Tyler Thornton left the program in the fall and Bailey Ober, the national freshman pitcher of the year, had season-ending elbow surgery one week into the season.
“I don’t think that makes a difference,” Butler said. “Of course, we’d love to have those guys out on the mound, but we knew we needed to make that push to get better even before the season began. We’re all one team. We just wanted to be better across the board.”
The Cougars have won four straight and eight of their last nine games. During that span, the Cougars are hitting .339 with 11 home runs and are scoring almost 10 runs a game.
“Everyone has been hitting lately,” Butler said. “I don’t think there’s any easy out in our entire lineup. Even the guys at the bottom are producing. We’re so much more consistent top-to-bottom.”