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 cliché, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org