Call it a comeback

Ace in the hole: As usu­al, lefty starter Dylan Burke has been fant­ast­ic on the mound for the Railsplit­ters, who have cruised to a per­fect 11-0 Pub­lic League Di­vi­sion B sea­son. Lin­coln is eye­ing its first Pub­lic League base­ball title since 1970. MARIA POUC

John Larsen re­mem­bers the struggles all too well. 

A few sea­sons ago, Larsen’s Lin­coln base­ball pro­gram would have had trouble win­ning two games in a sea­son. Now, with past pit­falls look­ing like an­cient his­tory, Larsen and com­pany have their sights set on something the Railsplit­ters haven’t achieved since 1970: a Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship.

Though there’s still a ton of work to be done, Lin­coln has quickly as­cen­ded from di­vi­sion bot­tom-feed­er to ser­i­ous con­tender, bull­doz­ing its way to a per­fect 11-0 Di­vi­sion B sea­son. The Railsplit­ters have been a play­off team the last two sea­sons, but this is the first time in a long time that they’ve re­sembled cham­pi­on­ship hope­fuls.

“It really starts with the three seni­ors who have been with me for four years,” Larsen said. “We’re pitch­ing, we’re get­ting qual­ity at bats one through nine in the or­der and our de­fense has fi­nally been a dif­fer­ence maker. Coach­ing is easy when you have the de­sire that these guys come to play with. I’m tickled to death at how they’ve re­spon­ded … it’s eas­ily the high­light of my coach­ing ca­reer so far.”

The three four-year seni­ors Larsen al­luded to are ace pitch­er/out­field­er Dylan Burke, shortstop Kev­in John­son and out­field­er Chris­ti­an McGov­ern. The re­lent­less work eth­ic the trio has de­veloped has trickled down to a tal­en­ted set of three-year play­ers, namely seni­or first base­man Matt Dugan, seni­or out­field­er Donta Neg­ron and ju­ni­or pitch­er/third base­man Justin Carlson. New­er play­ers like second base­man Eric Cin­tron and fresh­man catch­er Nick Houser have also stepped up and have proven to be key cogs on a deep team of tal­en­ted play­ers. The Railsplit­ters fi­nally pos­sess what they’ve been lack­ing in pre­vi­ous years: a be­lief that they can beat any­one in the league, di­vi­sion foe or not.

It all star­ted in last year’s post­season when the Railsplit­ters met up with North­east, a team that had fre­quently had their num­ber in past years. After yet an­oth­er close, heart-break­ing loss to the Vik­ings to­ward the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son, Lin­coln rolled in­to the play­offs ready to turn his­tory on its head. 

The team did just that, knock­ing off the Vik­ings, 9-6, in a game Burke star­ted. Though they ul­ti­mately were elim­in­ated by cham­pi­on­ship-bound GAMP, the Railsplit­ters were armed with a new weapon head­ing in­to 2013: big game con­fid­ence.

“That gave us a huge boost,” Larsen said. “Now, we feel like we’re battle tested. The North­east game was like our cham­pi­on­ship be­cause it had such huge emo­tion­al re­lease, which led to a let­down against GAMP. But after that game, I told them something I still tell them every day: ‘Our story is far from over … now, we feel like we’ve got some­where to go.’”

In ad­di­tion to hand­ling any and all Di­vi­sion B comers this sea­son, Lin­coln has also upen­ded Di­vi­sion A, non-di­vi­sion foes in Frank­ford, Cent­ral and Wash­ing­ton. The lat­ter two teams sit atop the Di­vi­sion A stand­ings in 2013, and the former has won three of the last five league titles, in­clud­ing two in a row.

After the Frank­ford win on March 25, Pi­on­eers head coach Juan Namnun, the most ac­com­plished coach in the league, ap­proached Larsen and told him just how im­press­ive the Railsplit­ters looked.

“Juan told me, ‘That’s a group that’s go­ing to make some noise,’” Larsen re­called. “For him to say that, a cham­pi­on­ship coach, that was huge. I passed that along to our guys, and I told them, ‘You know what? He’s right.’”

In Di­vi­sion B play, Lin­coln has outscored its op­pon­ents 128-23, in­clud­ing three straight shutouts in which they blanked the oth­er team 36-0. Like any team that’s won most of its sched­uled games (Lin­coln’s lone blem­ish to date was an April 6 loss to Fath­er Judge), the Railsplit­ters have had mul­tiple standouts. Burke has been the same guy this sea­son that he’s al­ways been, a crafty, ef­fi­cient south­paw who an­chors the ro­ta­tion. However, the biggest dif­fer­ence this year has been the sud­den emer­gence of Carlson as the team’s No. 2 arm. Carlson, who Larsen says has the best ve­lo­city on the staff, has fixed con­trol prob­lems from the past and has been truly lights out in the games he’s ap­peared in. He came with­in one strike of a per­fect game against Bok on April 11, then re­spon­ded with a five-in­ning per­fect game against Roxbor­ough six days later. 

“He could be a num­ber one on most teams,” Larsen said of Carlson. “He’s fol­lowed Dylan’s lead to the point where a friendly com­pet­i­tion has emerged. Justin will tell him, ‘I just threw a per­fect game, now it’s your turn.’ In a way, they push each oth­er, and Dylan has taught Justin a lot about har­ness­ing his frus­tra­tion and keep­ing his com­pos­ure out there. We’ll be in good hands with Justin lead­ing our staff next year.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, John­son has made a seam­less trans­ition from second to short, and McGov­ern has raked in the leadoff spot, lead­ing the team in RBIs. Catch­ing, which was a huge con­cern for Larsen in the pre­season, has be­come a pleas­ant sur­prise, as the fresh­man Houser has held his own both of­fens­ively and be­hind the plate.

To hear Larsen tell it, an­oth­er huge turn­ing point for the Railsplit­ters (oth­er than get­ting the North­east mon­key off their backs) has been not over think­ing things in the bat­ters box. In­stead of wor­ry­ing about the res­ult of an at bat, Larsen in­stead preaches fol­low­ing through on the pro­cess that yields a good at bat. This more simplist­ic ap­proach stresses that a suc­cess­ful at bat is not de­term­ined by wheth­er or not the bat­ter gets a base hit; rather, it be­comes more stra­tegic: Can the bat­ter men­tally frus­trate the pitch­er by gen­er­at­ing a long at bat? Can he lay down a bunt to ad­vance a run­ner in­to scor­ing po­s­i­tion, and can he move a run­ner over to third or across the plate by mak­ing a pro­duct­ive out? These are the ques­tions that have fi­nally got­ten through the heads of the Lin­coln play­ers.

“I know it sounds clich&ea­cute;, but we really do fo­cus on the pro­cess, which is pitch-by-pitch, in­stead of just send­ing a kid up there and say­ing, ‘Hey, go get a base hit,’” Larsen said. “And we nev­er let what hap­pens out in the field dic­tate what we do at bat, and vice versa. Now, these older guys get what I’ve been preach­ing, and they spread the word to the oth­er guys. The en­tire team is get­ting the point across.”

Larsen is care­ful in choos­ing his words when asked about Lin­coln’s chances to win a Pub­lic League title for the first time in 43 years. It won’t be easy, but with the league more wide open this year (Frank­ford is in the midst of a down year after gradu­at­ing most of its starters from 2012) com­bined with Lin­coln’s suc­cess against non-di­vi­sion op­pon­ents, the team be­lieves it can be done. 

Two years ago, Di­vi­sion B’s Thomas Edis­on made a run all the way to the title game, fall­ing to even­tu­al cham­pi­on Frank­ford, 5-4. Now, Larsen hopes it is his team’s time.

“Our men­tal­ity is that we be­long in Di­vi­sion A,” Larsen said. “We be­lieve that now. They’ve bought in­to this, and it’s really show­ing. We’ve all told them that one day, they’ll have an op­por­tun­ity to win the big games. I’m so proud of them. The im­port­ant thing is, I hope they can look back on this in 20 or 30 years and hon­estly say they gave it their all and left it out on the field.

“They’ve done it all for the team, and I’ll al­ways be in debt to them for that.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­

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