The Abraham Lincoln baseball team’s mantra of “inning by inning, pitch by pitch” may sound like one of the oldest clichés 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 déjà 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?” ••EndFragment