Major League Baseball players only get a four-month offseason and still need a full month to warm up in spring training. Bradley Braves’ baseball offseason has lasted 363 days, so it may take some time for the competitive spirit to return, right?
Head coach Elvis Dominguez does not believe it.
“We haven’t played since March last year,” Dominguez said. “I know they are hungry; they want to play. ”
Dominguez’s Braves have won a winning streak that has not been seen in decades.
Bradley is coming off 30-win seasons for the first time in 23 years during 2018 and 2019, without counting the shortened 2020 promotion. Now, with All-American senior outfielder Dan Bolt and Preseason All-MVC selection senior third baseman Brendan Dougherty and redshirt junior reliever Theron Denlinger in tow, the Braves are commanding more than just regional attention.
“I think we always have a goal on our backs,” Dominguez said. “When everyone is so competitive, you want to win as many matches as possible. I just think we have gained respectability not only in the league but nationally. ”
One player who has turned his head against Peoria is Bolt, the third team All-American selection and an almost unanimous favorite for MVC Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball magazine.
Choosing a fifth year of qualifying, Bolt played at a tremendous pace in 2020 before the Braves’ season was cut short after 10 games. In these competitions, the Braves outfielder posted a .357 stroke cut and a 1,330 on base plus slugging percentage, and was ranked fourth and first in the conference, respectively.
With an entire season, the senior player would have been on pace to stock an incredible 35 home runs in 50 games. However, Bolt gives more than just a glimpse of power to the Braves lineup.
“Dan brings another element into it, not only with his talents on the field, but also his leadership,” Dominguez said. “You’re talking about having a great culture, it’s the guy who makes the culture great.”
To accumulate another 30-win season, Bolt agrees that the biggest key is not seen on the field.
“It’s all the work you put in in the winter, and not just that, but a culture that starts with the coaches,” Bolt said.
One such coach who promises to play a crucial role for the Braves in 2021 is pitching coach Andrew Werner.
“Coach Werner, who has been coming for the last two years, has done a tremendous job of developing weapons and keeping the guys healthy,” said Bolt. “Our whole team knows [success] is going to start on the mound. ”
After a 2020 season where the Braves matched opponents in almost every statistical category, pitching is where the team seems to pull ahead of the pack.
“I have had many great coaches throughout my career, but one thing [Werner’s] done like no one else has done to me is that he is very statistical, ”said Denlinger. “He goes in depth with Rapsodo, and he can tell if you’re on your way just by looking at numbers.”
With advanced analysis common in baseball today, Rapsodo is a technology used by Bradley’s jugs that measures even the smallest details such as spin speed and axis for each pitch.
“He does not even have to be there and watch you throw on the mound,” Denlinger said. “He really takes baseball in a different form.”
The Braves will need all the competitive advantage they can get in the Missouri Valley, where Dominguez says “there’s a dogfight every weekend.” The case can easily be made that MVC is the best non-Power Five baseball conference in the country, sending several teams to the NCAA tournament on an almost annual basis.
In the 2021 season, Bradley and the rest of the MVC will play four-game series with double heads scheduled every Saturday. Depth can determine who wins or loses matches. However, Dominguez and the rest of the Braves see stretching their list as more of a strength than a weakness.
“Our bullpen goes deep, something we have previously lacked,” Denlinger said. “Now we have a team where you can drive anyone out there in two, three, four laps after the starts, and they can roll with it and give us a really good chance.”
On the offensive end, the Braves will look at a mix of old and new players in the 2021 lineup. Dougherty and sophomore first baseman Connor O’Brien are the top picks to follow Bolt as Bradley’s batting leaders. Bradley looks set to replace fielded duo Luke Shadid and Adam Rellihan with TJ Manteufel and Jackson Chatterton. Both first-year students have impressed in practice and show high praise from the upper class men.
Catcher Keaton Rice is one of six beginners on BU’s list this year and provides a steady presence for the Braves battery. The junior stopper has been placed on the National Catcher-of-the-Year Watch List every season of his Bradley career.
Bradley has all the pieces in the puzzle of an MVC championship laid out in front of him, they just need to put the puzzle together.
“Our success depends on both sides appearing on the same day,” Denlinger said. “Last year we had very good hits, and the next day we had very good pitching, but we could not get the two sides to combine. Getting both sides to do it every single match will be the key to success. ”
“Everyone has to do their job,” Bolt added. “I think we have all the parts, and if we do our jobs, we will see success.”
The Braves open the 2021 season against the Ball State Cardinals today at 5 pm at Corn Crib in Normal.