Independence on deck
By J. LEVI BURNFIN
By J. LEVI BURNFIN
Starting a best-of-three series quickly is vital. Falling behind by losing game one leaves teams without any margin for error.
That's why Garden City Community College head baseball coach Chris Finnegan has tapped his staff ace JJ Benes to make the all-important opening start against the Jayhawk Conference East's seventh-seeded Independence Pirates at 1 p.m. Saturday at Williams Stadium in the Region VI playoffs.
"Any series you have, any game, you want to get off to a good start," the seasoned coach in his ninth year with the Busters said. "I think JJ gives us our best opportunity. He works with a good pace. He keeps the infielders on their toes.
"He throws a lot of strikes and he competes — that's the one thing that you have to do if you're the leadoff guy as a pitcher."
The right-handed Benes enters the weekend with a 7-3 record in 11 starts and sports a starter-best 2.51 ERA. He and the West's second-seeded Busters (34-21, 21-11) will take on a Pirates squad that is 23-28 overall and 16-20 in the Jayhawk East.
The Pirates will likely counter with right-hander Matt Wasche, who is 2-2 in eight starts with a 2.53 ERA.
But Benes likes his chances, especially at home.
"I really enjoy pitching at home," the redshirt freshman said. "I don't think I've lost a game at home. It gives me a better feeling. I know the park and how it plays. It just overall makes me feel comfortable playing."
Benes' memory is correct. He was dominant at home this season, winning all six games he started, with four complete games, and a 1.62 ERA.
"He sets the tone for us," Finnegan said of the Northwest Missouri State University transfer. "He's pitched in some big games for us, and he's done really well.
"He's had a couple of games where the ball hasn't bounced our way for him, but we know when JJ's on the mound we have the opportunity to win because he's going to keep us in the game."
The Pirates, who finished the regular season with five consecutive losses, are not an explosive offense, with just 20 home runs this season, but will provide challenges for Benes and the other probable starters for the Busters — Chris Bonk, and if the series goes three games, Dalton Shalberg on Sunday.
"(Independence) is good, scrappy, hard-nosed," Finnegan said. "They get after it. They don't run a lot (with just 37 stolen bases) but they can swing it. Their pitching is above average. They throw quality strikes."
The Pirates hit .316 as a team with a .389 on-base percentage. Their pitching staff sports a 5.67 ERA overall.
Meanwhile, the Busters counter with a .309 average, a .406 on-base and 32 home runs.
The Busters are led by Tyler Alitz's eight round-trippers, while designated hitter Rocky Desantis leads the team in RBIs (45), average (.361), on-base percentage (.450) and doubles (20). He also has six home runs.
Tyler Tucker sets the table at the top of the lineup with a .342 average, .414 on-base, and has stolen a team-leading 31 bases to go with 55 runs.
But their biggest strength is their pitching, as they boast a 4.33 ERA.
Bonk, a sophomore right-hander, will take the hill in game two — which will begin immediately following Saturday's opener — with a spotless 9-0 record in 11 starts and a 2.97 ERA.
If the series is forced to three games, Shalberg will be on the mound at 1 p.m. Sunday, replacing usual No. 3 lefty starter Jake Eikleberry (Eik, pronounced Ike) to give the Busters more flexibility in the bullpen.
"Right now, Dalton's pitching well," Finnegan said of the switch. "He is. We don't have a left-on-left matchup out of the bullpen. And right now, if there was a fourth game, we'd go with Jake Eikleberry, but in a short series like this, Eik gives us the opportunity where if somebody gets bumped right away, we've got a valuable option out of the pen that can eat up a lot of innings for us."
But the biggest advantage the Busters have, according to Finnegan and his players, is playing at home.
"It's always important," Finnegan said. "Guys get the opportunity to stay in their routine. They sleep in their own beds. They have the opportunity to come out to the field that they practiced on and played on all year. Families get to come down. It's easier — it's just an easier mental part of it."
His sophomore shortstop agreed.
"(Playing at home) was our goal the whole season, to host a playoff game, because we know how our park plays, how our groundballs, how they're going to jump or anything like that," Alitz said.
If the Busters beat the Pirates, they will move on to the Region VI Championship tournament in Wichita on May 9-13.
The Busters reached the double-elimination tournament in Wichita last year after sweeping Johnson County in the sub-regional at home, but fell to Coffeyville and Colby in the first two games.
"It would really be big for us," Benes said about possibly reaching Wichita. "We had a tough season early on, and we've really come on in the middle of it.
"I think it would really be great for us to get to that next level."
As the first pitch is thrown at Williams Stadium for the baseball team, the Lady Broncbusters softball team will be in the middle of their NJCAA Region VI-Division I tournament opener against Seward County at Wilkins Stadium at Wichita State University.
The Lady Busters, who enter Saturday's noon contest at 21-31 and 7-9, are the third seed in the five-team region, while the Lady Saints are 45-10 and 12-4 and enter as the second seed.
The Busters have only won two games — non-conference victories over North Platte on April 25 — in their last 11 games dating back to April 19, leaving head coach Becky Gundy looking for answers.
But the last couple of days of practice has shown Gundy her team might still have something left.
"This week, we've had two practices where we've looked a lot better than we have played," the second-year coach said.
The Busters went 1-3 during the season against the Saints, but split the last series in Liberal on April 16, just before the recent skid.
"If we play the way we're supposed to, and we play the way we've looked the last few days, it's all going to come down to which teams shows up for us, not really who we play."
The Saints do provide a big challenge, though.
"They're going to be tough," Gundy said. "They're always tough no matter what time of year you see them."
The tournament is a double-elimination format — if the Busters upset the Saints, they will not play until 10 a.m. Sunday. However, if the Busters lose, they will play at 4 p.m. in an elimination game against the loser of Barton and Colby, which play at 10 a.m. Saturday. The region winner advances to the NJCAA Division I World Series, scheduled for May 14-17 at St. George, Utah.