Elk Grove Continues Its Mastery Of Playing Its Best Baseball In Late May And Early June •
Story By JIM MCCUE | Photos By JAMES K. LEASH
Most numbers mean little to Elk Grove baseball coach Jeff Carlson, especially in March. The wins and losses only matter in late May and early June . Then the number of players continuing at the next level — whether it is college baseball or in professional baseball — are important, too.
“The early season stats, you can just throw them out,” Carlson said. “Most teams are not facing Division-I pitchers every time out, so we only worry about getting our players for league and the playoffs and for making it to the next level.”
Elk Grove started the season 1-4, but Carlson and his staff were not concerned since the team was not out of any of the games it played against top-level competition on the road. The Herd lost leads to Bay Area powers De La Salle and Valley Christian-San Jose before going 1-2 in the Central California Showcase in Clovis. After returning home to earn victories over Sac-Joaquin Section competition, they dropped three of four games in the ultra-competitive San Diego Lions Tournament.
“If we weren’t competing in those games, then I would have been worried,” Carlson said, “but we were competing against some great teams and facing everyone’s ace. We always just want to win the last game of the season.”
The Thundering Herd (21-10) will try to finish their third consecutive season with a win in the final game as Elk Grove, the Division I North champion, will face South champion Tracy, in a rematch of the 2016 SJS Division I championship series on June 2-3 at Sacramento City College.
Elk Grove captured its third straight Div. I North title and 10th section crown since 2002 with a 9-6 victory over Delta League rival Davis in what seemed like an all-too-familiar result for the Blue Devils and so many other teams in past years. The win improved the Herd’s head-to-head mark against the Blue Devils to 4-0 in 2017, including a pair of postseason wins.
Those numbers might not have seemed possible to observers viewing a 6-7 record in mid-April, but Carlson and Elk Grove believed they were right where they needed to be despite returning just three starters from the 2016 roster.
That trio — senior Riley Lamb and juniors George Spithorst and Tanner Carlson — took the reins and assumed key leadership roles to ensure that the Herd thundered onto another Delta League and SJS Div. I North title. Lamb, who will continue his baseball and academic endeavors at USC, was Elk Grove’s ace as the lone starting pitcher back from the previous year’s roster. Despite posting a pedestrian 5-4 record on the mound, he was 2-0 in the postseason and only lost once in 2017 to a section foe. Add a hot bat in the playoffs and Lamb was everything that Elk Grove expected from its top returning arm and bat.
Spithorst was good enough as a sophomore to allow Dylan Carlson to move to the outfield before being drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Cardinals, and continued to anchor the defense at first base while swinging a mighty bat. He led the team with a .349 batting average, 29 hits, and 18 RBI in the middle of a lineup that improved as the year rolled on.
Carlson, the youngest son to make his way through the program that his father has built, quieted any critics who believed that the youngster was only in the lineup due to his name. He played a solid shortstop and provided the insight and leadership of one intimately familiar with the keys to success of a championship program.
But a three-peat was not possible with only three players. Senior catcher Jeremy Kolb was Elk Grove’s fourth captain and handled the pitching staff while being nearly flawless behind the plate. Junior pitchers Brian Freitas and Jake Jordan stepped up to combine for a 9-0 record, including a pair of postseason wins, and Jordan added a .329 average and 18 RBI to the mix.
Sophomore third baseman Kenny Williams was a new addition that allowed Carlson to slide over to shortstop, and he responded with 28 hits and a .326 average in addition to his strong play at the hot corner.
The underclassmen who have picked up where past graduates left off provide a bright outlook for the continuation of the Thundering Herd’s dominance, but Carlson and Elk Grove are not ready to rest on any accomplishments earned in 31 games thus far.
There are still two more wins that mean something to the Herd, but South champion Tracy will not yield a third consecutive and eighth overall Division I championship to a more established program. Senior pitcher Cody Bolton wants to add an overall Div. 1 title to back-to-back South titles before heading to Michigan. The right-hander is 9-1 with a 1.24 ERA and has struck out 88 batters in just 62 innings.
Senior infielder Nathan George led the Bulldogs with a .471 batting average, seven home runs, and 30 RBI, and junior outfielder Josh Alvarado batted .424 with 39 hits, 36 runs scored, and 24 RBI. Tracy was never out of a game, especially in the postseason as the Bulldogs pulled off several late-inning rallies to earn a second shot at Elk Grove in the Div. 1 championship series.
Carlson and Elk Grove will hope to keep Tracy from working any more late-game magic to deny their program another title and the continuation of a long run of success.
“It’s a cycle where you are losing guys every year and hope that the system works,” Carlson said. “You hope that the next guys learn how to respond to the coaches, the pressure, and the schedule, and that you can ride the course and keep working hard to get better all year long.”