Irvine, Calif. – It’s a new season of OC Riptide baseball and the goal is the same as ever: bring home the CCL championship. But first, of course, they have to work on getting to the playoffs. This year, the playoff situation is a little unique, with the SLO Blues receiving an automatic bid in exchange for hosting, leaving the rest of the South division to vie for the remaining two spots. Still, Head Coach Tim Brown isn’t worried. To pave this year’s road to the playoffs, some things have changed and some have stayed the same. But all for the better.
Last season ended with disappointment, as the Riptide came just a half-game short of a playoff bid. The coaching staff traced the issue to two main causes: too many strikeouts on the offensive side and too many walks on the defensive side. As Coach Brown puts it, “I can think of probably a half a dozen games that I can name right now where strikeouts were the primary reason why we did not win that game. And we missed the playoffs by half a game. It was that tight. So those strikeouts were big.” As far as the pitching, Brown attributes the walk issue in 2021 to many of the pitchers on the roster having thrown 10 or fewer innings during their college season: “We had some talented guys but they hadn’t thrown in over 6 months in a competitive situation.”
Once the coaching staff had found the problem, the next step was simple. Fix it. They went into recruitment for the 2022 season with two clear goals: limit strikeouts and walks. Of the recruitment process, Brown said, “Once we really looked at the numbers hard, that’s when we decided to adjust in how we recruited this year. So when we went about recruiting our offensive players, we really looked hard at strikeouts. That was the first stat we looked at. If a guy had too many strikeouts, we just went to the next guy.”
On the pitching side, they looked specifically at guys who had thrown around 30 innings during their college season, who could be counted on to throw about 30 innings in the summertime. As Brown says, these are guys with “some competitive experience, they have better control, mentally they’re gonna be sounder and more stable.” Of course, some things didn’t go as planned; there are always unforeseeable circumstances. Sometimes, a starter will get injured and a guy will unexpectedly have to fill in, bumping his innings to 60 and leaving him unable to throw more than 15 innings all summer. To account for this, this year the coaching staff is adjusting their plans to use 5 pitchers per game, an increase from their plans to use 3 last year. Brown is confident these recruitment adjustments will be just the thing the team needed to secure a chance at the league championship.
Furthermore, excitingly, the new players have made the roster incredibly flexible, with 9 out of the 22 roster position players batting left. “We have two guys who can hit anywhere in the infield – one bats right and one bats left. We have a left-hitting catcher (Gavin Mez), which we didn’t have last year,” says Coach Brown. This variety of handedness allows flexibility, match-up capabilities late in-game, and lineups constructed to alternate left/right all the way through. It’s shaping up to be a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Importantly, even with these new adjustments, some parts of the roster stayed the same. Many of the 2021 Riptide players are coming back for another season with the organization. Familiar names such as Blake Penso, Gavin Haimovitz, Clayton Owens, Emilio Rosas, TC Simmons, and Austin Kryszczuk are back on the roster. Brown attributes this unexpected delight to a myriad of reasons.
For the Riptide to have so many returning players, Brown says, “that says some things about us. I think one, it says some things about Orange County. Players like to be here. I think there’s a lot of things that make Orange County special. One is, obviously, the weather. I think Orange County being the proximity it is to the beaches and the other things that are interesting to do here. I think that’s part of it. But I also think that part of it is our program, our organization. I think that for the most part, we treat players really well. They all live with host families. We travel well. We play in a really, really nice facility. The playing surface is beautiful. And players see that and they appreciate it.”
Not only do the comeback players prove the organization and playing environment are ideal, but they will also be a great clubhouse presence. Brown has complete faith in their abilities: “We’ve made significant changes in the way we approach our team and we have guys who can all take leadership roles and I’ll be able to get with those guys, and say ‘OK, you were here last year. This is why we made the changes that we made. And you can see the reason there. So what I really need you to do is to lead. And to get these other 30 guys who are here to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and how much better off the ball club will be as a result of that.’”
With the returning players at the helm and strikeout and walk issues hopefully solved, this team’s future looks bright. “Overall, I think we’re more talented than we were last year and I think we’re talented enough to win or certainly to get into the playoffs. So hopefully we’ll achieve that goal and give us a chance to be League champs.”