April 25, 1997 in Sports

Whitworth Starts To Bounce Back Baseball Team Comes On Strong After Poor Start

By The Spokesman-Review

For a while this spring, its looked as if Whitworth might be suffering from “contenderphobia” - the same fear of a first-division finish that seems to be stunting the progress of the area’s other two four-year college baseball teams.

The Pirates, after splitting their first six games, drifted into a mid-March swoon that included a nine-game losing streak and had them crawling along at 3-12.

Fourth-year coach Rod Taylor wasn’t getting the kind of pitching he expected from his veteran staff and his young position players were struggling offensively. The Bucs appeared destined for the same fate that has Washington State and Gonzaga wallowing in the cellars of their respective leagues.

But Whitworth, unlike its local counterparts, was able to recover from its downward spiral.

Since a 4-2 Northwest Conference of Independent Colleges loss to Pacific Lutheran on March 28, the Pirates have feasted on NCIC opponents, raising their record to 12-16 and 10-2 in the conference. They have won nine of their past 13 games - including 9 of 10 against league foes - and currently lead the NCIC standings by one-half game over Willamette (20-9, 11-4), which comes to Merkel Field for an important three-game series this weekend.

The two teams play a doubleheader at 1 p.m. Saturday and a single game at noon Sunday.

“Everything seems to be coming together right now,” a confident Taylor said. “It’s taken some time, but we’re starting to play the way we’re capable of playing.”

One reason behind the turnaround is the offensive improvement in a lineup that scored two or fewer runs in five of the last six games of the nine-game skid.

Since then, the Pirates have averaged more than eight runs a game behind the bats of left fielder Jason Francek, shortstop Miguel Saldin and designated hitter Tim Bishop.

“Jason has been our hottest hitter of late, by far,” Taylor said of Francek, a junior transfer who played junior-college ball at Walla Walla and Spokane after graduating from Mead.

Francek stroked three singles in Tuesday’s 8-5 non-conference loss to WSU and raised his average to .448. He has two home runs, eight doubles and 15 runs batted it.

“We knew he could hit, but we didn’t know how well he could hit,” Taylor said of the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder. “He’s a very competitive kid who works hard and has a great mentality at the plate. We should have known it would only be a matter of time before he got hot.”

Saldin, a freshman, turned down a free-agent contract offer from the Milwaukee Brewers after leading Blanchet High to last year’s State AA baseball title. He had four hits in a loss to WSU and raised his average to .371. He also has two home runs and 20 RBIs and has solidified an infield that features four new starters.

Bishop, like many power hitters, has been inconsistent - yet productive. The 6-4, 230-pound transfer from Lower Columbia, has struck out 24 times in 91 at-bats and is hitting a modest .296. But he leads the team in home runs with seven and RBIs with 23. Fifteen of his 27 hits have been for extra bases.

“He’s streaky, to say the least,” Taylor admitted. “But when he gets it going, he can do some tremendous things with the bat.”

The pitching that Taylor thought would be the strength of this year’s team has also improved, and the Pirates now boast three of the league’s top starters in Jason Tracy (3-2, with a 4.10 earned run average), Sam Fleming (4-4, 5.30) and Jason McDougal (3-3, 5.91). , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos

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