published Monday, May 21st, 2012

Tennessee Wesleyan surging into World Series

ATHENS, Tenn. -- Riding a 14-game winning streak that includes seven double-digit margins and three other victories by at least five runs, the Tennessee Wesleyan College baseball team would seem to be as ready as possible for the NAIA World Series this week in Lewiston, Idaho.

The Bulldogs have gone the last two years and have no World Series win yet, with two one-run losses, but they are seeded fourth out of the 10 teams this season.

Wesleyan (48-11) opens at 6 p.m. EDT Friday against Embry-Riddle (43-16), a Florida team that defeated the Bulldogs 5-2 way back on Jan. 29 in Montgomery, Ala. The winner won't play again until next Monday; the loser plays at noon EDT Saturday.

Lee University (54-9-1) is seeded No. 2 behind LSU-Shreveport and begins play Saturday at 6 EDT against the winner of Friday's tournament opener between Point Park (51-9) of Pennsylvania and College of Idaho (41-19).

"It doesn't matter who we play if we play our style of baseball. The two streaks we've had, that's what we've done," said Wesleyan senior shortstop Stephen Branca, who is batting .442, leads the NAIA with 80 runs scored and also has driven in 65. He has 16 home runs, 18 doubles and a triple this season.

"The way we're playing baseball right now is the way we wanted to go into the World Series."

From a 5-5 start, the Bulldogs won 21 games in a row before losing 7-5 to NCAA Division II member North Alabama. They lost the next two as well but since then have lost only three games, two of them at Lee. In May they have played only at Kingsport, Tenn., in impressively winning the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament and an NAIA Opening Round series.

"We were hitting .327 as a team when we went to the conference tournament, and now we're at .338," TWC coach Billy Berry said. "Offensively we've done well the last two weeks, but to be 48-11 we've been pretty consistent all year. We've just got to find a way to get that first win in the World Series, and I think it helps that a lot of our kids have been there before."

Berry didn't need pitching depth to get through those recent tournaments, but he has it, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen.

Junior transfer Jeremy Fitzgerald is 10-0 with a team-high 84 innings pitched and a 3.75 earned run average, and junior lefty Josh Culler is 9-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 77 innings.

Corey Rhoney has worked his way into the No. 3 spot with a 9-0 record and 2.50 ERA in 58 innings, and Levi Dean, Zach Fleshman and Ben Crocker have been effective both starting and in relief. Corey Collins has four saves with a 3-1 record and a 2.67 ERA, and Alfonso Yevoli has become a force with 29 strikeouts in 18 innings and five saves.

"This is probably the best defense I've had behind my back in college or high school," said Fitzgerald, who is scheduled to start Friday's game, "and it's great going into every start feeling we're going to get a lot of runs."

Besides Branca, senior third baseman Taylor Oldham is batting .361 with an NAIA-high 83 RBIs to go with 19 homers, and second baseman Anthony Boix is hitting .348 with 65 runs and 46 RBIs. First baseman Jake Stone is hitting .409 with 68 RBIs and 61 runs, and Thomas Sicking, Drew Levi and Jordan Guida have .349, .347 and .317 averages with solid run production. The other two regular starters, center fielder Travis Burnside and catcher Dale Ricketts, have .284 and .283 averages with strong up-the-middle defense.

Oldham starred at Covenant College previously but played against Branca in the Alaskan summer league. As fellow Floridians, they got to talking and found they had a mutual friend as well as the shared experience of Chattanooga-area college ball, and Oldham decided to transfer. Boix moved from third to second base to accommodate Oldham's arrival and has made "some unbelievable plays," in Branca's words.

"We want to put up crooked numbers to make our pitchers comfortable so they can pop the [strike] zone," Branca said, "and making the plays behind them will make them even more comfortable."

The Bulldogs certainly have been in a comfort zone lately.

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