Spacious Riley Park, with winds often blowing in off the Ashley River, favors pitchers. Metal tech analytics have tilted against any college baseball player swinging a rules-altered bat these last three seasons.
Citadel head coach Fred Jordan wins games and Southern Conference titles with a “small ball” approach, and running.
Not power. The particularly powerless Bulldogs hit only 19 home runs while going 25-33 last year.
So seeing a young Citadel team tied for the SoCon lead in homers this weekend is like seeing The Above Average Gatsby on a marquee.
Yes, 51 home runs. So far this year.
Doubly impressive: The surging Bulldogs went homerless for the second straight game Saturday while managing a second straight 7-1 victory over the College of Charleston at The Joe.
“That’s Citadel baseball,” said designated hitter Bo Thompson, who leads the team with 12 homers. “We’ve been playing Citadel baseball the last couple weeks and we just have to keep it going.”
Evidently, “Citadel baseball” isn’t just winning.
It’s winning every which way. Which is fun to watch, and perhaps good enough to win the Southern Conference tournament starting May 22 in Greenville.
The Bulldogs (30-21, 17-9 in the SoCon) have won 11 of their last 13 league games starting with a three-game sweep at Georgia Southern. They are in second place behind Western Carolina, and feeling good about themselves.
“Absolutely,” left fielder Drew DeKerlegand said. “I feel like we have a really good chance in the tournament. We’re playing good baseball. We just have to keep hitting, play good defense and get good pitching.”
Easier said than executed. But The Citadel has done it two games in a row against the College of Charleston.
Flexibility allows the Bulldogs to win even with Thompson in an 0-for-26 slump.
The homer total would surpass 51 with Tyler Griffin (8 homers) in the lineup. The right fielder has been out since April 9 with a foot fracture.
Aside Thompson in the heart of the order is junior catcher Joe Jackson, who has 11 homers (and is related to the late Shoeless Joe Jackson).
“We have three or four guys who have a little power and the ballpark this year has been very forgiving,” Jordan said after clinching his 18th 30-win season in 22 years at The Citadel. “But this weekend it’s not, so we’ve kind of flipped the switch and utilized our speed and our inside game. Our guys have bought in. Hopefully, we can just keep getting better. That’s the biggest thing.”
Only one extra-base for The Citadel on Saturday: Bailey Rush’s RBI double in the fourth inning.
“We’re not always going to have the big hit or the timely hit,” DeKerlegand said. “But coach Jordan always pushes staying in the game even if you’re down and winning the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. So far this series, it’s been our defense.”
That hasn’t always been the case; The Citadel is last in the SoCon in fielding.
How to explain how a team picked to finish eighth in the SoCon in a preseason poll of coaches is rolling through May?
Homers massage defensive bruises.
Slick glovework turns up during power outages.
Pitchers throw strikes (among SoCon teams, only the College of Charleston has allowed fewer walks).
Depth allows Griffin to go down — he’s expected back this week — and transfer grad student Brett Bullard to step in with a .284 average at No. 9 in the batting order.
And the confidence is contagious.
“It’s pretty competitive in the dugout,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of people chasing to lead the team in average, or home runs, or walks. When someone does good, we all want to do good.”
If all that good keeps up through Greenville, it adds up to a great season.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.