Texas Wesleyan staggered out of the starting gates to begin the season, but the baseball heirs of Tris Speaker whipped together a recipe to wipe away the mediocrity much the way Mr. Clean does while on kitchen patrol.
It’s equal parts togetherness, leadership, and the indispensable triad of good pitching, defense and timely hitting that have transformed the work-in-progress Rams into the No. 1 seed and favorite to win this weekend’s NAIA Sooner Athletic Conference tournament in Oklahoma City.
Wesleyan (37-15) faces Bacone College (6-34) of Muskogee, Okla., in the first round at 11 a.m. Friday at Oklahoma City University. A berth in the NAIA regional tournament is in play.
The Rams enter riding a wave of confidence after closing the regular season with wins in 22 of their last 23 games, including a run of 17 consecutive victories. In its last 29 games, Wesleyan went 26-3.
All after an early stretch of six losses in seven games.
“I think we just started playing fundamental baseball, team baseball, unselfish baseball,” said junior shortstop Casey Moses, a North Las Vegas, Nev., native who is the Rams’ top hitter and unquestionably their leader. He’s the guy who pushes and prods his teammates.
“We have a lot of confidence. We believe we can beat anybody, but we don’t take it for granted. Anybody can beat us at any time also.”
17 Consecutive victories by Texas Wesleyan during the season.
The Rams are seeking their sixth regional appearance under coach Mike Jeffcoat, the former Texas Rangers pitcher now in his 15th season on East Rosedale. The school boasts Speaker, the baseball Hall of Famer, as its most famous baseball alum, though baseball has been good over the years at Wesleyan.
The 1980 team was one of the school’s best with more than 50 victories under the eccentric Frank Fultz, who as the coach was known to appear at home plate to trade lineup cards dressed as comedian Groucho Marx or former mustachioed MLB closer Al Hrabosky. Another time he brought a hand puppet, which did all his talking for him.
That team’s season ended in disappointment, falling short of its lofty expectations amid rumors of team dissension, according to news reports at the time.
It’s safe to say that won’t happen with these players, who say that under the leadership of Moses they are as thick as thieves.
That wasn’t always the case with a team full of new faces, but they worked to build the relationships all good teams have.
They play well, they hustle, play very fundamentally sound. Youth coaches should come out to see these guys play.
Texas Wesleyan coach Mike Jeffcoat
“In the beginning it was more of a team bonding issue,” catcher Garrett Crook said. “We didn’t really jell as team, and as a the season progressed we really came together as a team. I think that was our problem last year: We never had one solid unit. Midway during the season, the pitching really came together and the hitting came together at the same time.”
Moses is hitting .366 with 20 extra-base hits in 48 games, a .435 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage over .500.
Crook, a Burleson Centennial product, gets much credit from his teammates and Jeffcoat for his work behind the plate in stabilizing the pitching staff, which includes Zach Aiken (8-3) and Stephen Yancey (8-1).
Those two, along with center fielder Alex Gudac, like Moses, a transfer from Mesa Community College in Arizona, make up a solid middle of the field for Wesleyan.
“We’ve got three guys as good as anybody in our conference up the middle right now,” Jeffcoat said. “We have a good defensive catcher … a defensive catcher in baseball is worth his weight in gold. He’s not hitting very well, but he adds 60-80 points to his batting average by what he does defensively.”
Confident, yet with the knowledge that in baseball anything can happen, the Rams head across the Red River hoping to add to their budding legacy. Maybe even do something that would make Speaker smile.
“These guys have a great attitude,” Jeffcoat said. “They’re playing so much better because of their individual attitudes and, as a team, pushing each other to get better. They have high expectations of each other. They play well, they hustle, play very fundamentally sound. Youth coaches should come out to see these guys play.
“This is a pretty good college baseball team.”