The University of Central Missouri baseball program has a long tradition of excellence. They are the winningest team of the 2000s, with more wins than any other program across collegiate baseball. No team has won more MIAA titles than the Mules 24, including five consecutive regular season and tournament sweeps in the early 2000s.
A 30-win season to an outsider looking in may seem like a good season, however to the Mules it is considered a down year. Last season — Kyle Crookes first at the helms of the Mules — was just that. While it wasn’t a lost year, it did not meet up to the lofty expectations in which UCM has become accustom.
“I wouldn't consider it a "bust" if we play well and lose,” Crookes said of the championship mentality at Central Missouri. “But I believe that the expectations at this program are high, and championships are a part of that.”
This season appeared to start off on the wrong foot. They lost all three games at the Houston Winter Invitational, including a one-run loss to St. Cloud. Before they knew it, UCM was heading into their eighth game of the year staring down a 1-6 record.
“Honestly, we could've just as easily been 6-1 in those games,” Crookes said. “Five of those games we lost by a single run. We just didn't get the big hit or make the play at a crucial time.”
Suddenly, the Mules started playing that winning baseball again. They would reel of 19 wins in their next 21 games and go on a tear in the MIAA. Crookes seemingly never had a doubt, as he knew the team is a roster full of men who simply won’t quit.
“This group is a resilient bunch,” Crookes said. “They experienced a good deal of adversity from last year's experiences, into early this year and right up to now. We have put ourselves in bad spots and other good teams have had us down or beaten us, but this group of kids has continued to fight. That tells me that they believe in their training and trust enough to play and see what happens.”
Crookes doesn’t point to a single quick fix or turning point in this season that triggered the all-important turn around. Instead, he reflects on the 2015 season. Where other teams could allow that to lead them towards a downward spiral, Crookes has used it as a lesson for his team.
“I think that we had made adjustments going into the season based on the last season's lessons,” Crookes said. “We just had to trust what we had done and keep working at it. Doing things the right way, and not feeling sorry for ourselves. This group has done a good job of that.”
The Mules have used that early season rough patch as fuel to the fire. They now sit at 31-12 overall and 29-7 in the MIAA. They jumped into the NFCA Poll at No. 23 from the unranked and jumped five spots to No. 16 in the recent Collegiate Baseball Poll. Most importantly, they sit at No. 3 in the Central Region.
“Losing six early is never a confidence boost,” Crookes said. “The way that this group of coaches and players has handled themselves up to this point always gave us reason to feel good about ourselves regardless of the result.”
UCM clinched a share of the regular season title with a big sweep of MIAA rival Missouri Western. It was a hard fought battle that the Mules won by a mere combined seven runs in the three-game set. This weekend, they head to Washburn for another big series to determine the outright MIAA regular season champion. The postseason has seemingly already begun for the Mules.
“There is a playoff atmosphere and feel every weekend,” Crookes said of the ultra-competitive MIAA. “There is so much good baseball in the MIAA, so in my mind the playoffs have been happening for a long time.
“Missouri Western is a real good team and we certainly feel good about the way we played against a good team. The atmosphere and intensity were tremendous, it always feels good to win when you are that invested. It helped us in terms of standings but there is more work to be done. Washburn is a very good team, a team that we have seen and know how good they can be. I look forward to the competition against a great opponent and the opportunity to continue to grow and get better as a team.”
The pitching staff has led UCM to an MIAA best 4.00 ERA while limiting opponents to a conference best .240 batting average. Junior righty Ethan Westphal — a 2016 Brett Tomko Award finalist — has led the way behind a 7-2 record, striking out 79 over 72.1 innings. The offense behind the pitching staff has been getting the job done, seemingly growing into their roles each passing series.
“The offense as a whole has done a good job of grabbing concepts that have been thrown at them,” Crookes said. “Coach Kyle Grieshaber has really worked hard with the group, helping them grow as hitters and learn how they can each help this club in their own way without having to go outside of themselves. Hitting is hard, especially with quality pitchers making it harder. Bennett [Oliver] has made great strides from last year as have other hitters. [Derek] Cornell, [Jake] Alexander, and others as well. I'm proud of them for sure. What they have done to this point is help pick each other up.”
With a share of the regular season title locked up and needing just one win at Washburn to clinch the MIAA, UCM is back in familiar territory. That leaves one last step: for Crookes to help his team make a successful run in the MIAA tournament and return to the NCAA postseason.
“It's important for the team to go to the NCAAs because that is something that this group has worked towards and something that this athletic department and its history demands,” Crookes said. “It would be rewarding because this group has worked hard, and I really want to see them achieve their maximum potential, and I believe in their ability to do that.
“I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing players see the fruits of their labor. That is rewarding to me, and in terms of my career, I want this place to be everything that it can be and it is my greatest goal to give everything that I have to this school and program to help keep the bar high.”