HENDERSON — No Scenic West Athletic Conference baseball team has had a better won-loss record than the Western Nevada College Wildcats over the last half of the season.
After concluding the first half of the conference season by losing three of four games at College of Southern Idaho and seeing its record fall below .500, the Wildcats won 14 of their final 16 games. Their only two defeats during that stretch were to conference winner College of Southern Nevada, which hosts this week’s postseason tournament.
As a result, WNC (38-18 overall, 23-13 SWAC) feels very good about its chances going into this week’s Region 18 tournament in Henderson.
“I think we have a really good chance,” said sophomore catcher Cole Ferguson, who leads the Wildcats with 41 RBIs and has played a major role in helping the pitching staff compile a 2.62 earned run average. “We’re playing really good, we’re playing together and we have good team chemistry going right now.”
The second-seeded Wildcats open the five-team, double-elimination tournament against third-seeded Salt Lake at 3:30 p.m. today. The teams finished in a second-place deadlock in the SWAC, but the Wildcats earned the higher seed based on taking the season series from the Bruins, 5-4.
WNC swept a four-game series at Salt Lake on April 5-6 after dropping four of the first five meetings with the Bruins.
“We’ve been getting better all year and playing our best baseball at the end, absolutely,” said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore.
In the nine encounters with the Bruins, the Wildcats have surrendered 27 runs, meaning scoring four runs was the magic number on average to beating the Bruins.
Naturally, both teams don’t want to drop into the losers’ bracket.
“It’s a one-game season, and Salt Lake is formidable anytime we play them, anywhere we play them,” Whittemore said. “I’m looking for that to be an incredible baseball game.
“You lose there, you have to win four straight. We’re going to treat it the same way we treat every game the whole year — a must-win.”
WNC is well-armed for tournament play with four starting pitchers carrying below a 3.00 earned run average into Henderson. Whittemore has confidence in starting pitchers Cody Hamlin (8-2, 1.62 ERA), Christian Stolo (6-2, 1.84 ERA), Philip Belding (7-1, 2.46 ERA) and Luke Eubank (3-4, 2.89 ERA). The top candidates coming out of the Wildcats’ bullpen include Evan Parker (0-3, 1.59), Conor Harber (0-0, 0.96 ERA) and Austin Richmond (2-3, 3.30).
A wild-card hurler for the week is sophomore Brandon Show, who came into the season as the Wildcats’ No. 1 starter but missed a good chunk of the season with an elbow injury. Show (4-1, 3.51 ERA) is rounding back into form and threw four innings in the Wildcats’ 4-2 victory over College of Southern Idaho on Saturday.
While pitching and defense have been consistent for WNC this season, the Wildcats’ offense has been hit or miss. The Wildcats surrendered only eight runs in a four-game series at College Southern Nevada on April 26-27 but only came away with a split.
WNC has several veterans in the lineup, such as catcher Ferguson, Mike Umscheid and AJ Hernandez, with tournament and Junior College World Series experience, but a young Wildcats’ squad has struggled at times with runners in scoring in position, stranding a little more than seven runners per game on the bases.
The Wildcats, however, are hitting .293 collectively and have six hitters with better than .300 averages, including freshmen Harber (.387), Stolo (.377) and Conner Klein (.353).
“We are definitely capable of going into the regionals and winning it, just taking it one game at a time,” said sophomore outfielder Donald Glover Jr., who might have found his hitting eye in the final game, contributing a triple and two-run single in a 7-2 win over CSI.
“I feel with this team our strength is our speed and we’re pretty smart. We don’t have as much talent as last year’s team, but we play as a team, and team chemistry is going to take us a long way.”