Salukis play complete baseball in order to finish strong

April 26, 2023

At the time of writing this, Saluki baseball currently stands at 23-16 after a sluggish start to the year. The team’s offense has been an integral part of winning 15 of their last 19 games, but it is not the lone factor in the Saluki’s success.

“We’re just playing defense at an incredibly high level… we’re not giving the other team any extra outs,” coach Lance Rhodes said.

A big portion of the stout Saluki defense has been their ability to turn double plays. They lead the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) with 42, which allows their pitchers to get out of jams and erases multiple baserunners on a single play. Saluki infielders like Steven Loden are delicate in their process on these defensive plays.

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“Making sure to get that first out and getting the second one if we can…it helps us get confidence and I think it helps the pace of the game go by,” Loden said.

SIU has only committed three total errors so far through 14 conference games. They aren’t giving away outs and therefore not giving away runs.

Loden is a huge contribution to that as he has played tremendous at second base this season, having yet to commit an error while being involved in many of the turned double plays that lead the conference. He reacts to the batter’s swing and positions himself accordingly in order to have the best opportunity to make a play on a ball that is hit his way. As any second baseman needs to be, his process when fielding involves him being patient and calm in order to make the plays for the Saluki pitching staff.

“I think it’s always comforting to know that you’re one good pitch away from…potentially getting out of a tough situation,” Rhodes said. “…And a lot of those double plays have just been because our infield defense has got a lot of range and we’ve got some arm strength on the infield.”

The entire SIU pitching staff has improved during its run of winning baseball, and one pitcher specifically, who benefits from the efficient fielding behind him, is Saluki reliever Paul Bonzagni. It is a new title for Bonzagni after ramping up in the offseason and then beginning the year as a starting pitcher. But after a rough start to the season, he was transitioned to the bullpen where he has shined over the last month and a half.

“We thought he was going to be one of our better arms going into the year. And when we started him, it just wasn’t clicking for some reason and you know, we decided to make a change,” Rhodes said.

While still capable of throwing multiple innings, the move has given Bonzagni a change of scenery and the ability to be more precise with his pitches. His command has improved, being able to get more pitches over in the strike zone, which has increased his effectiveness.

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“It’s helped me out a lot so far…being able to throw more strikes,” Bonzagni said.

He has accrued the most pitcher wins (seven) on the team, while also leading the Salukis in saves (three). His 4.22 earned run average (ERA) on the year is misleading when compared to the 1.98 ERA he has posted since shifting to the bullpen. Although Bonzagni says his mindset has remained steady throughout his role change, it is rewarding for him to get the final outs of a game.

“It’s a lot more fulfilling, a lot more exciting to be able to finish the game off. You get to go dap up the catcher and it’s just over after that, it feels nice,” Bonzagni said.

Rhodes said, “You know, it’s been nice because we feel like we get to the sixth inning, we can turn it over to him and we have a chance to win the game.”

Recently, SIU has pulled out more close games, mixing in some walk off wins with clutch hitting. They have five walkoff wins with four of their last seven wins being sealed in their final at-bats at home. It is the opposite reality when the team compares itself to the early stretches of the season.

“I think when you look at the beginning part of the year…we were losing those close games. And you know, there’s not a whole lot of teams that can get off to the start that we did and come back and have a great season. And we’ve been able to do that,” Rhodes said.

He attributes a lot of it to the toughness of the players.

“They just go out there and they believe that we’re going to win. You know, I almost feel like now…it doesn’t necessarily feel like there’s a ton of pressure there because we’ve been in that moment so many times,” Rhodes said. “There’s not going to be a situation whether it’s down the stretch in the regular season or in the conference tournament that’s going to put a ton more pressure on us than we’ve already been through.”

But there are games where the offense doesn’t click, and it calls for the Salukis to manufacture runs and create offense on the basepaths.

“We don’t have like a ton of speed necessarily, but we’ve got a few guys that, if the opposing team allows us to steal…then we have enough of those guys that can take advantage of that…,” Rhodes said.

They have only attempted to steal 55 bases on the year but have been successful 44 times (80%). Some things they might look for are a pitcher’s time to the plate or the catcher’s ability to pop up and get the ball down to a base quickly attempting to throw out a runner stealing.

One of the guys who is known to swipe a base is center fielder Nathan Bandy. He has been the perfect leadoff batter for SIU as he holds a .449 on-base percentage and is almost perfect on steals (nine out of 10 attempts). Bandy held a perfect stealing percentage up until just this past Saturday against Indiana State. Although the Salukis aren’t prone to run early in games, they are opportunistic, and Bandy executes on what the team looks for.

“I know we like to steal a lot in advantaged counts when we have guys that are going to protect the baserunners,” Bandy said.

With proven hitters down their lineup, those batter-friendly counts create a greater chance to formulate offense as the pressure is put on the pitching and defense. Baserunners look for signals from Coach Rhodes and the coaching staff and capitalize on what the opposition gives them.

“No matter what kind of hitting team you have like that to cause havoc as baserunners…finding a way to manufacture runs even if you’re not swinging it well,” Bandy said.

The combination of pitching, defense and baserunning along with their potent offense has equated to a Saluki team that can wreak havoc in the MVC. Sitting at second place in between Indiana State and Missouri State in the standings, they have a long way to go but are confident in their chances of earning the top seed.

“We’re only halfway through our conference season. So I think it’s just being able to continue to repeat the things that we’ve done over the longevity of the season,” Rhodes said. “We can control our own destiny, which is the greatest thing you can ask for in sports.”

 

Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected].

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