It has now been over two weeks since The Rock baseball team last suffered a loss. In that time, they’ve won 10 straight games, including sweeps over Seton Hill University and Clarion University of Pennsylvania. The four-game sweeps brought their conference record from 5-7 to 13-7, and they’re now in a three-way tie for first place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) west.
“We’ve been playing very good baseball the last couple weeks and it’s helped us move up the standings, we’re contending for PSAC playoffs, and we just need to continue to play well and finish the season strong,” coach Jeffery Messer said.
Just a few weeks ago, things were starting to look dark for Slippery Rock. After splitting four straight series, The Rock was sitting at 18-9, but had only five wins in PSAC play. Big series against California University of Pennsylvania and Gannon University both saw their ups and downs, but the splits did nothing to help The Rock’s playoff hopes.
Just as the light started to fade, The Rock was set to face No. 17 Seton Hill in a four-game series. The series was make or break for Slippery Rock. The first game was a battle with the Griffins and after an eight-inning game, The Rock pulled out a 3-2 win.
“After we won the first game of the series, which I feel like was the most pivotal, because it was a close game,” Messer said. “It gave us confidence and put pressure on them, and when we did sweep them the first day, we had Mineo pitching and when we took the third game, the fourth game was a bonus.”
The next three games of the series helped The Rock find their footing. The 15-4, 3-0 and 2-1 wins completed the sweep of Seton Hill. The wins, which may turn out to be the turning point of the season, were marked by dominant pitching in which the team had seen spurts of this season.
“[The sweep] over Seton Hill was huge, because I don’t think they’ve been swept since they came into the PSAC and they were sitting in first place by themselves at the time,” Messer said. “You don’t ever go into any conference weekend thinking that you’re going to take all four, especially with teams like Seton Hill.”
Those wins were the start of their current 10 game win streak, but without those games, The Rock may not be on the roll they are now.
“It was a huge weekend and it really changed the direction of where we were in the standings, but when you’re playing someone four times in a weekend, that’s how quick the standings can change,” Messer said. “It just shows that, like I said, every game counts and every W is great especially if you can get all four.”
Now the path to the playoffs runs through University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ) and Mercyhurst University. This weekend, The Rock will be matching up with UPJ, who up this point is sitting in last in the PSAC west. Historically though, Slippery Rock has struggled at UPJ and it’s something that Messer acknowledges.
“I think that just being the PSAC our guys know how much of a fine line it is from first place to last place,” Messer said. “UPJ has lost a lot of one run games, and they’ve been in a lot of games.
“They play in a funky park, and they definitely play stronger in their park in Johnstown, so it won’t be an easy series, but we don’t take anybody lightly.”
This is the second big win streak Slippery Rock has had this season, and they’ll look to keep it rolling against Pitt-Johnstown. With these games, Messer knows that they can’t go in thinking they’re going to take all four games, like they have the past two conference series they’ve played.
“We’re in a good situation right now, but we need to continue our winning ways going into the weekend against UPJ,” Messer said.
Looking ahead after the UPJ series, The Rock will only have five games left before playoffs and should they keep things on the track they are, they should have no trouble getting there. In order to keep things that way, Messer thinks they need to keep the edge they’ve been playing with.
“After five weekends, we’re tied for first place and it’s very important that we keep our guard up and play our best baseball,” Messer said.
Should things pan out the way they’re pointing, the series against Mercyhurst will become the biggest of the year for both teams. They both are sitting in first with Gannon right now, and any one could grab the first seed.
“Hopefully the series will mean a lot, we’re not really looking all the way to Mercyhurst, but it’s nice to think that we’ll both be in and we’ll both be playing to decide on where you fall in the playoffs,” Messer said.
The private schools in the PSAC are always in the hunt for the title, whether it’s Mercyhurst, Seton Hill or Gannon. For The Rock to play at their best against them is something that Messer hopes they can continue to do.
“Mercyhurst, Seton Hill and Gannon are always the benchmarks, you know the private schools that are going to be competitive year and year out,” Messer said. “Mercyhurst is having another good year, and they can sweep a series if you don’t play your best baseball.”
The Rock’s pitching staff has given them a chance to take the first seed in the playoffs. Ricky Mineo, Devin Dunn, Luke Trueman and Ethan Edkins have led the way for Slippery Rock’s defense. The four have been huge and each had their moments.
“Our four weekend starters are as good as any starter in the conference, and they’ve been pitching up to their potential,” Messer said. “But we feel really good going into every weekend with them, and they may not have their best game every time, but they keep us in the game.”
As things wind down, The Rock is continuing to tear up their competition, but to get to playoffs, Messer thinks a lot has to happen from now until then.
“We need to continue our solid pitching, because that’s what gets you into the playoffs and wins championships,” Messer said. “We knew we were going to have good pitching this season, but we need to continue to have good outings from our starters, and the whole philosophy for the last few weeks has been one game at a time, one pitch at a time and our pitchers are really following that.”