Dynamic Duo

"I real­ize my re­spons­ib­il­ity for this school goes bey­ond base­ball. I've al­ways wanted to make something of my time here." — Lin­coln second base­man Kev­in John­son.

Lin­coln pitch­er Dylan Burke de­liv­ers a pitch dur­ing Sat­urday’s game against Ben­s­alem, April 21, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Scott An­der­son)


The Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln base­ball team’s man­tra of “in­ning by in­ning, pitch by pitch” may sound like one of the old­est clich&ea­cute;s in the sports book, but it’s a philo­sophy that has al­lowed a young Railsplit­ters squad to grow tre­mend­ously since last sea­son.

In 2011, Lin­coln won just three Pub­lic League games, drop­ping a num­ber of ex­tremely close con­tests that could have made them a ser­i­ous con­tender rather than a one-and-done play­off team. Hav­ing such bad luck can be enough to de­mor­al­ize any pro­gram, but in­stead of pout­ing about the un­for­tu­nate res­ults, the Railsplit­ters have learned from the ex­per­i­ence. And al­though win­ning those late, tight games has still proved to be a chal­lenge, the squad by no means is back­ing down from the task at hand.

All one has to do is spend some time with the 2012 ver­sion of the Railsplit­ters to see a com­pletely dif­fer­ent, more con­fid­ent team, one that be­lieves it is a ser­i­ous con­tender in Pub­lic League Di­vi­sion B.

Roughly halfway through the sea­son, Lin­coln already has as many wins as last year’s team, stand­ing at 3-2-1 when the Times went to press this week. It left the Railsplit­ters two games out of first place with a lot of base­ball still to play … and they are ex­cited to erase those doubts that they can’t win a close game.

“Los­ing the one-run games the way we did last year, that was tough, but I think it has really helped us go­ing for­ward,” ju­ni­or second base­man Kev­in John­son said. “The re­turn­ing play­ers have talked to the oth­er guys about hav­ing stronger team chem­istry both dur­ing the games and off the field to en­sure we know the right way to re­spond if we lose a close one. It’s something we’re still work­ing on, but the dif­fer­ence between last year and this year is that now we’re con­fid­ent in those situ­ations.”

So far, the close games have yet to treat the Railsplit­ters any more kindly. After be­ing elim­in­ated by North­east in last year’s post­season fol­low­ing a heart­break­ing 10-9 loss, Lin­coln ex­per­i­enced d&ea­cute;jà vu in a March 28 con­test at North­east, cough­ing up a late lead to lose by the same score. They also lost a 6-5 de­cision to Ed­ward Bok Tech­nic­al High School on April 12 and played to a 6-6 tie in a sus­pen­ded game against Kens­ing­ton that is ex­pec­ted to be com­pleted later this sea­son.

Those out­comes were dis­cour­aging on the sur­face, but the Railsplit­ters have re­spon­ded by pum­mel­ing the op­pos­i­tion in their three league wins, outscor­ing Samuel Fels, Swen­son and Phil­adelphia Elec­tric­al by a com­bined score of 38-4. After the loss to Bok, the team held a play­ers-only meet­ing be­fore the game at Fels, and the res­ult was a 13-0 tri­umph — the first shutout head coach John Larsen could re­mem­ber in some time.

While last year’s Lin­coln team may have let a back-break­ing one-run loss linger to the next game, this sea­son’s squad seems to take out their frus­tra­tions on the next op­pon­ent.

“There have been a couple of oc­ca­sions where we’ve played flat, but their work eth­ic and will­power to get bet­ter have been off the charts,” Larsen said. “The game against Fels was an ex­ample of what these guys can ac­com­plish when they put it all to­geth­er. These guys are tired of los­ing those close games, and they’re very fired up as we head in­to the second half of our sea­son.”

Larsen’s roster has just three seni­ors, but ju­ni­ors John­son and pitch­er/left­field­er Dylan Burke have stepped up to take the reins as team lead­ers. The two have played to­geth­er since they were 7, so their as­cent to team lead­ers has paid off — Burke leads the team with a .548 bat­ting av­er­age, while also lead­ing the way in hits, doubles, triples and slug­ging per­cent­age. Burke also has been stel­lar on the mound, post­ing a 4-3 re­cord with a 2.31 earned run av­er­age and a strikeout/walk ra­tio of 61/13.

John­son has been no slouch him­self, hit­ting .343 with a team-lead­ing 13 runs scored. He also has been an am­bas­sad­or off the field for Lin­coln, get­ting in­volved with the stu­dent gov­ern­ment and do­ing everything from selling pret­zels to class­mates at lunch­time to help­ing plan a blood drive. John­son of­ten gives up his en­tire lunch peri­od on game days to rake Lin­coln’s beau­ti­ful new base­ball field and make sure the play­ing sur­face is up to par.

“I real­ize that my re­spons­ib­il­ity for this school goes bey­ond base­ball,” he said. “It means a lot to me to help out around the school, es­pe­cially be­cause my fresh­man year here was the first year of the new school build­ing. Be­ing a part of the first gradu­at­ing class of the new Lin­coln, I’ve al­ways wanted to make something of my time here.”

Burke feels the same way.

ldquo;Kev­in and I have al­ways been pretty tight, but this whole team has been really close with each oth­er from day one,” he said. “Every­one listens to each oth­er and has re­spect for each oth­er. They’re an easy group to lead, and Kev­in and I are hav­ing fun with it. Guys that came be­fore us when we were young­er, they did things the right way too, and that’s what we’re try­ing to do.”

The vet­er­an lead­er­ship of Burke and John­son has been palp­able for the Railsplit­ters, who are bat­ting .317 as a team and post a re­spect­able 3.53 team ERA. Seni­or third base­man/pitch­er Jairo Bautista has chipped in with 11 in­nings of work on the mound and a .406 av­er­age at the plate, while ju­ni­or out­field­er Donta Neg­ron has 10 hits in just 23 at-bats thus far.

Though the losses to North­east still linger, this Lin­coln team sees it­self as a top-tier pro­gram in Di­vi­sion B. They fully ex­pect to see the Vik­ings down the line come play­off time, but they also un­der­stand they won’t get that op­por­tun­ity if they can’t fig­ure out how to win a close ballgame in their re­main­ing six reg­u­lar-sea­son games.

ldquo;It’s mostly an ex­per­i­ence thing,” Burke said. “A lot of these guys on the team are new, so they tense up and get up­tight in pres­sure situ­ations. But it’s something we’ve been work­ing on, and every single guy on this team be­lieves we can play with and beat any team in this di­vi­sion.”

Ad­ded Larsen: “If we had scored just two more against North­east, two more against Bok and one more against Kens­ing­ton, we’d be un­defeated right now. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re close. Win­ning those close games is a sign of a battle-tested team, and I al­ways re­mind the guys that they aren’t there yet. You’re nev­er as good as your best game and you’re nev­er as bad as your worst game, so they’re learn­ing from the ex­per­i­ence. They’ve main­tained their com­pos­ure, and I’ve really been left im­pressed by that.”

Larsen, Burke and John­son all said the re­cent losses to North­east have re­mained on their minds, but for now, the Railsplit­ters are fo­cused on each com­ing game, hope­ful that a run of suc­cess will lead them on a col­li­sion course with the Vik­ings once again.

“Lin­coln base­ball is tak­ing it in­ning by in­ning and pitch by pitch, from be­gin­ning to end,” Burke said, echo­ing his coach. “We don’t get caught up in look­ing too far ahead, mainly be­cause we can’t af­ford to. We’re just fo­cused on one game at a time and play­ing the way we know we’re cap­able of.

“What else can we do?” ••


You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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