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Tigers' goal attainable down the stretch

4/19/2012

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University baseball coach Steve Johnson designed a 10-step goal system many years ago that lets players "know the importance of every game."

When the Tigers started 2-10, Fort Hays simplified the goals down to two.

"Felt like after we lost a couple games, we were trying to change the whole season with one game and you can't play baseball that way," he said.

"We decided to take a step back and say, 'OK, what's the two most important things that we can attain right now and that was a winning record and making the conference tournament.' We don't have to stop there, but that's the main focus we are trying to accomplish," he added.

Fort Hays has turned its season around with a 17-8 run and reached a game over .500 after Tuesday's victory against non-conference foe University of Nebraska-Kearney. at Larks Park.

The second goal is still attainable. FHSU carries a 16-15 MIAA record, sixth in the conference. The top six squads make the MIAA postseason tournament.

While most teams have three conference series left, Fort Hays has only two.

That could hurt the Tigers -- who have alternated wins and losses for the last nine games -- if they don't play well down the stretch.

"Guys have stuck together, and they have believed in themselves and that's important, but there are still times where I think that we can still play a lot better baseball," Johnson said.

"There are times when I think when we still hang our heads sometimes and we allow too many big innings."

The Tigers have a four-game series Friday and Saturday with eighth-place Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University (17-20-1, 12-16 MIAA) in Bolivar, Mo. Fort Hays is 6-10 away from Hays this season. Senior ace Shawn Lewick (4-3, 3.58 earned-run average) is expected to open the series.

The Tigers have won at least two straight road contests just once this year when they went 3-0 in a mid-March series against last place Lincoln (Mo.) University (4-31, 4-23).

After three non-conference games, Fort Hays finishes the year at home with a four-game set against second-place Missouri Western State University, currently second in the league. FHSU is currently ahead of seventh-place Northwest Missouri State University (13-15), though the Bearcats have the season tiebreaker over the Tigers by winning three of four in Hays earlier this spring. As well, Northwest Missouri has three series left, including one at home versus Lincoln.

"These are big weekends for us," senior shortstop Sheldon Howell, the team's leading hitter with a .406 average, said.

Fort Hays continues to rank among the nation's best in several offensive numbers, including fourth in homers per game and sixth in slugging percentage in latest statistics release.

Junior left fielder Ryan Busboom is having an All-American-esque season with 13 homers and 52 RBIs.

He stands fifth in Division II and first in the MIAA in homers per game and RBIs per game.

"Offensively, we just trust each other, one through nine, everyone knows that we can get the job done," said senior designated hitter/second baseman Mace Krol, who is second on the team with nine homers.

"You just step up and do your part when it's your turn."

However, the Tigers have continued to play up-and-down baseball in the last 12 days, including a four-game home split last weekend with Truman State (Mo.) University, second-to-last in the conference.

"We have slips like that and for good teams to be successful when it comes down to the postseason, we can't have that," Howell said. "There are still things that we are working through as a team."

Those slips have been a season-long issue for the Tigers. But on Tuesday, Fort Hays overcame some difficulty, including an error by Howell, to bounce back and earn a win.

"We are not afraid to follow success," Johnson said.

"If we see other people being successful, we will definitely join in, but I think where we have struggled at times is we are afraid to follow failure. We need people to step up after mistakes are made. If a pitcher is struggling, we need to make a defensive play behind him instead of just contributing to the problem. Our ABs, at times, have been the same way."


Scoreboard
Sport Date Opponent Score
2/18 SW Baptist L 66-53
12/1 Oklahoma - Panhandle L 66-60 (OT)