For Cambridge Isanti baseball coach Todd Smrekar, the Bluejackets’ success with a dugout full of juniors and inexperienced varsity players comes down to one uttered sentence.
“They’re not acting like it,” he said, matter-of-factly, when reflecting on his team’s quick 5-2 start to the season.
That much is obvious. Through the team’s first seven games, two juniors have bolstered the pitching rotation, its junior catcher has acted as a brick wall behind home plate and a handful of other 11th graders have filled in holes left vacant from last year’s senior-laden squad.
And the results are showing already, making it really tempting to look down the road and consider just how smooth the gears could run once the team really hits its groove. Thankfully for them, one of the Bluejackets’ greatest assets so far, according to the players, is to shove that anticipation aside and just play ball.
“Our ability to overcome difficult situations seems like it’s a lot farther along for as early in the season,” said Cole Bakke, the ace of the staff at 4-0 on the season. He is followed by No. 2 junior Ryan Miller. “It usually takes halfway through the season or three-fourths of the way to get that chemistry. But it seems like we already have it.”
The righthander paused, contemplating what, exactly the secret to their quick success was.
“You don’t want to lose,” he said. “Losing (stinks).”
So far, Bakke has made sure of that as much as he possibly can. The junior, who emerged at the front of the rotation last season, continues to wow opponents with a mid-80’s fastball, mixing in a curve and change-up.
“He’s just one of those guys you really want on your team because he does not like to lose,” Smrekar said. “He’s like a bulldog on the mound.”
While the pitching has thus far carried the team, Smrekar said he has seen several other encouraging signs: Ryan Epsen’s mastery behind the plate, a team average of over .300, players that had limited roles last season stepping up and producing (spotty 2010 hitter Mike Henderscheid is hitting .450 through seven).
And then there’s games like last week’s win at Monticello, in which nothing was quite going the Bluejackets’ way.
“It was so cold,” Smrekar said. “We couldn’t even get a ball out of the infield.”
Yet despite the often-prolific offense’s slumber, the skipper described the game as “one of the most exciting games” he’d seen in his 15 years as head coach. That’s because Bakke threw a complete game, struck out 10 and the lineup was able to manufacture a run in the seventh on good baserunning and sheer grit.
“I think we impressed a lot of people that day,” Bakke said.
He hopes that calm confidence – despite age or experience – will allow the trend to continue.