Pending what would be seen as a giant upset, the Garden City Broncbusters baseball team will finish 2018 with a losing record — just the second such season during head coach Chris Finnegan’s 14-year run at the helm of the program.
To avoid that, the Busters will have to beat the NJCAA ninth-ranked Cowley Tigers in a best-of-three series to open the Region VI Tournament — Game 1 is set for 2 p.m. Friday at Tiger Ball Park in Arkansas City, followed by Game 2 Saturday and, if needed, Game 3 Sunday.
How big of an upset would that be? Well …
“It’s David vs. Goliath. It’s nobodies vs. the somebodies,” Finnegan said earlier this week.
The Busters (26-27) enter the tournament as the 16th seed (No. 8 from the KJCCC’s West Division), and Cowley (40-9) is the top seed (No. 1 in the East Division).
The Tigers have won seven games in a row, and 21 of their last 22 games. Their offense is No. 2 in the Jayhawk Conference in batting average (.350) and tops in on-base percentage (.451) — and they are in the top 20 in the NJCAA in both — scoring nearly 10 runs per game.
They’re led by freshman outfielder Alex Peterson, who has 81 RBIs while hitting .492 with a .568 on-base percentage and 29 extra-base hits. Sophomore outfielder Kea’von Edwards leads the team with 12 home runs, while still hitting at a .374 clip and a .452 OBP.
And yet, it’s their pitching that may be even more dangerous, recording a staff ERA of 4.35 for the season and striking out 10.06 batters per nine innings — both ranking second in the conference.
A quintet of freshmen, right-handed hurlers have led that staff in innings pitched. Andrew Roach and Brannon Jordan stand out even more. Roach — 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA and a 9.36 k/9 — has been the Tigers’ No. 1 starter during the four-game weekend series portion of their schedule, and Jordan — 7-1, 3.47, 11.39 — has started 10 games but has appeared in his last two games as a reliever.
Then there’s Cole Larsen, who leads the team with a 0.89 ERA across 40.1 innings pitched. He’s striking out 12.27 batters per nine innings, and has allowed just 24 hits and five walks.
“They’re going to be better in every aspect of the game than we are — athletically, on the mound, defensively, offensively, bullpen-wise,” Finnegan said. “It’s just something where, I hate to say we’ve got to play perfect, but we’ve got to play smart. We’re not going to be conservative, but we’ve got to execute what we’re asked to do.”
And the Busters have been lacking execution this season, making mistakes at inopportune times and compounding smaller errors with biggers one, resulting in big innings for the opponent.
The Busters’ pitching staff has been led by a couple of freshmen, as well, in Austin Stone (5-4, 7.03 ERA) and Eric Heiman (5-2, 3.92 ERA). Left-handed Kendrick Catron (0-1, 7.06 ERA) and right-handers Jacob Douglas (4-3, 7.74) and Ryder Yakel (1-4, 4.62) are also likely to make appearances in the series.
The Garden City offense is led by Clint Allen, who’s hitting .349 with a .452 OBP, with 28 extra-base hits and 41 RBIs. Corbin Truslow leads the team in home runs (18) and RBIs (75), hitting .374 with a .491 OBP.
As a team, the Busters are near the bottom of the conference with a .297 batting average, but are middle of the pack with a .413 OBP.
“We’ve just got to find a way to play well, find a way to get to Game 3 and see what happens,” Finnegan said of the series.
And if there is good news, it’s that Cowley’s defense has been susceptible to committing errors, with 83 in 49 games. The Tigers also do not hold runners very well, recording just two caught stealings all season — the Busters stole 77 bases this year. The winner of the series moves on to the Region bracket play next week in Wichita.