August 10 - In late June, during the College World Series, Loudoun South American assistant coach Keith Yates read an article that he thought manager Alan Bowden might enjoy sharing with the team.
The article, written by Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com, highlighted the two-strike approach that had helped Michigan push Vanderbilt to a decisive third game in their CWS championship series. The Wolverines led the eight teams in Omaha in batting average, walks and on-base percentage behind coach Erik Bakich’s philosophy that his players take a selfless approach once a count reached two strikes.
“We shrink the zone with less than two strikes. We look for pitches to smash,” Bakich told D1Baseball.com. “And understanding that having the discipline to try to shrink the zone and just go after those pitches you can hit the hardest with less than two strikes is going to put you in good hitters’ counts.
“And when you do have two strikes, we talk about it becoming a team at-bat. It’s no longer your at-bat, it’s a team at-bat, and your job is to get in there and be as gritty as you possibly can and fight to win the next pitch and see another pitch.”
Bowden loved it, and he asked his parents to print the story for the players and to have them review for the next practice.
“We asked them to have the kids circle and highlight things that they felt were important and told them we were going to focus on this at our next practice,” Bowden said. “We asked them what their favorite thing was about the article.”
His players, many with a baseball acumen well-beyond their age, quickly bought in.
“What we really took away from it was that we’re an aggressive-hitting team, but once you get two strikes, it is no longer your at-bat, it’s a team at-bat,” Bowden said. “Put pressure on the defense, put the ball in play and let’s move kids over and do something to help the team.
“We have stuck to that mantra since the District 16 Tournament. As coaches, we continue to learn and I studied and learned that from the Michigan coach. It’s continued to help our team.”
Loudoun South American has fielded an offensive monster this summer, featuring a deep lineup that has keyed its 16-game winning streak. Earlier this week, they won the Southeast Region championship to become Virginia’s first team to advance to the Little League World Series since Central Springfield in 1994.
Much like during Michigan’s postseason run, the South Riding team has flourished at extending at-bats, getting runners on base and moving them over. The last five batters in the order have drawn 56 of the team’s 86 walks, helping flip the lineup over to Loudoun South American’s fearsome foursome of Chase Obstgarten, Brady Yates, Justin Lee and Colton Hicks. Those four have combined to drive in 105 runs, including 32 by leadoff man Obstgarten.
“It’s been fun to watch the way they approach their at-bats, and we have all the way through the regional tournament,” said Bowden, whose club is hitting .419 with a .520 on-base percentage in its 18 games. “If they get to two strikes, you’ll hear [first base coach Brian Triplett] or myself holler at the kids, ‘It’s a team at-bat now’.”
That message mirrors the one Bakich delivered to his team while the Wolverines made their third NCAA Tournament since he came over from Maryland in 2013. It was the Big Ten Conference program’s first CWS appearance since 1984.
“Coach [Bakich] said there’s only two counts: there’s non-two-strike counts and then there’s two-strike counts,” Michigan’s Joe Donovan told D1Baseball.com. “If you’re in a non-two-strike count then you just look for a pitch that you can smash And if you are [in a two-strike count], you just try to fight off as many as possible.”
‘Smash’ is how one might describe the top of Loudoun South American’s lineup: Obstgarten (.508, 10 HR, 32 RBI), Yates (.515, 7 HR, 25 RBI), Lee (.607, 15 HR, 36 RBI) and Hicks (.450, 5 HR, 22 RBI) have piled up gaudy numbers. But Bowden has given as much credit to his team’s other hitters, who have constantly set the table and come up with several big hits of their own.
And he maintains his team’s success has come at least in part from adopting Bakich’s message.
“Our team has been totally focused on what he said and my kids picked up on that and ran with that,” Bowden said. “It’s crazy where you find different things to talk about and different things you can use to motivate.”
Photo of Michigan players, at left, via Associated Press and of Loudoun South American players, right, by Krystal Culpepper