April 5, 2010
Rome, Ga. - The optimism was evident when it approached the start of a new season more than two months ago.
The Shorter College baseball team had a good foundation on which to build to cast aside the difficult season it endured the previous year with key players returning at nearly every position.
Yet the concern over an unknown pitching staff was major issue lingering with the Hawks at the outset. With only a handful of hurlers returning, Shorter opened the 2010 campaign with a staff that was filled with a healthy majority of new faces and new arms.
So much for those concerns.
As the Hawks head into the final month of the 2010 season - one in which the team has already matched its 18 wins from a year ago and is a legitimate threat to finish near the top of the Southern States Athletic Conference - Shorter's corps of pitchers has emerged as one of the keystones to success and are committed to putting the program back on track.
Just ask two members of the staff, sophomore reliever Matt Kirksey, a former Rome High standout who was one of the few holdovers from 2009, and junior starter Tim Day, who after coming to America from Australia has found a home on the Hill.
"There's a huge difference from last year," said Kirksey, who last year as a true freshman led the Hawks with 15 appearances. "There are a lot of new faces and they have definitely helped out a lot. The team chemistry is there."
Day, the newcomer, found that out right away when he arrived at Shorter.
"I'm used to moving around and starting fresh," said Day, who pitched last year as a closer at Central Arizona Community College before joining the Hawks. "I was really welcomed here. Coach Larry, the other coaches and my teammates - they're all so easy to get along with. I've made friends here."
That unified team attitude was also embraced by the Hawks' first-year pitching coach, Lee Bryant, who exudes confidence in the pitchers he oversees and at the same time, makes sure that they know that they are just a piece of the total team puzzle.
"As an overall group, I feel no matter who we put out there we'll have a chance to win," said Bryant, who last year was the head assistant at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., and during the summer, served as the pitching coach for the Staunton (Va.) Braves of the Valley Baseball League, which won their first pennant in five years. "They support each other. No one is selfish and as a collective group - pitching, hitting, fielding - we all have the same goal."
Bryant quickly established that collective mantra early on when he heard some grumbling among his staff, which threw well out of the gates, about the lack of support offensively at the plate after the Hawks lost the first four games of the season - three by one run.
"We had a meeting and I told them we were all 0-4," Bryant said. "As that collective group, as a team, we were all 0-4."
Since then, the Hawks have been playing above .500 ball with every aspect of the game, from hitting and fielding, where Shorter has drastically improved its numbers from last year, to pitching, where the overall earned-run-average is down and nine of the 14 hurlers on the staff have appeared in five or more games.
Day leads the group having seen action in 13 games, leads the team with a 5-2 record and 39 strikeouts, and has pitched a team-high 53.1 innings.
Last week, the 5-foot-10 righty was named the SSAC's Pitcher of the Week after he collected his first save of the season in the Hawks' 12-10 triumph over No. 11-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan College and then tossed a complete game to help the Hawks hand No. 4-ranked Southern Poly its first conference loss of the season.
Having established himself as Shorter's weapon out of the bullpen, Kirksey has picked up where he left off last year, getting the call in 10 games and holding a perfect 3-0 record with a 3.67 ERA.
Both pitchers agree that the entire staff is on the same page every game, with the primary objective being throwing strikes.
"That's still our biggest issue," Day said. "We preach that every day. If we throw strikes on the first or second pitch, we can avoid trouble."
Communication is also vital among the pitchers and Bryant.
"We talk to each other every day," said Kirksey. "If someone's struggling we try to pick him up."
"We communicate with them really well," Kirksey said. "We know we have to make sure we're both on the same page."
"I feel good throwing to Dave and had him out there with me every game at the start of the season," Day said. "But [against Southern Poly] Ross caught me and I still felt real good about that."
Bryant and his pitchers have made it a point to know the scouting report of the players that they will be facing at the plate and place emphasis on knowing the personnel in every game.
"I put a lot of emphasis on it," said Bryant. "It gives them an idea of what they're going to face. I network pretty well and can simply pick up the phone and get a scouting report on anyone."
Bryant, who calls each pitch, also keeps an eye on who he has on the mound.
"One of the things they know, and I stress, is that I want to put them into a situation where they can be successful," Bryant said. "They know they can go out and make their own success or failure, and failure is part of the game."
"He's always asking us how we feel," said Day. "He lets us go to see where we're at."
Said Kirksey: "He's helped us out a lot."
Riding a five-game win streak, the program's longest in two years, the Hawks (18-20, 6-6 SSAC) return to the field Tuesday, April 6 when they host Atlanta Christian College in a non-conference doubleheader.
The team then turns its attention back to the SSAC this weekend when the Hawks visit No. 24-ranked Brewton-Parker College for a three-game set. The showdown is one of three conference series - eighth-ranked Lee University and Faulkner University also loom in the near future - that remain for Shorter.
At this point in the season, all league bouts are vital - the Hawks are one of five teams within two games of second place behind conference frontrunner and No. 2-ranked, Southern Poly.
"I think we can play with anybody," Kirksey said. "We've proven it against ranked teams. We just have to stay focused and play as a team."