Trending upward

After an 11-0 showing in Division B a season ago, Lincoln baseball has risen back to the Public League’s top division. They plan on staying put.

  • Junior no. 2 starter Cody Ulmer has been effective for the Railsplitters.

  • Dual threat: Senior third baseman Justin Carlson (right) is a powerful bat in the middle of Lincoln’s order. Carlson is also the team’s top pitcher, winning all 3 of Lincoln’s division games thus far, posting 24 strikeouts in 20 innings pitched.

  • Everybody hits: Lincoln sophomore catcher Nick Houser takes his hacks in a recent 7-3 loss to Esperanza. The Railsplitters are 3-2 through five Public League Division A contests. Head coach John Larsen believes his team has what it takes to win a title. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

John Larsen re­mem­bers the dark­er days, so for­give him for not al­low­ing his sky to fall fol­low­ing two con­sec­ut­ive losses.

The Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln base­ball coach’s team has lost two di­vi­sion games for the first time since 2012. Both were in a row and both were sloppy; first, there was a sev­en-er­ror ef­fort in a 6-2 loss to Phil­adelphia Academy Charter on April 10, fol­lowed the next day by a 7-3 loss to Es­per­anza that the Railsplit­ters once led 3-0. 

Here’s the good news: Lin­coln — fresh up to the Pub­lic League’s A Di­vi­sion fol­low­ing a per­fect 11-0 mark last sea­son in Di­vi­sion B — won its first three games of the league cam­paign: road wins over di­vi­sion stal­warts Frank­ford and Cent­ral, fol­lowed by a thrill­ing 11-in­ning, 4-3 win over Edis­on that Larsen called “one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of” fol­low­ing a walk-off bunt by shortstop Chafil Al­varez. 

Lin­coln (3-2) cur­rently sits be­hind Wash­ing­ton, Es­per­anza, Frank­lin Towne and Phil­adelphia Academy, well with­in strik­ing dis­tance with the bulk of the sched­ule still to play. Des­pite the losses, Lin­coln still looks like a ser­i­ous Di­vi­sion A con­tender, something that hasn’t been said about this pro­gram for awhile.

“Back in the early-mid 2000s, we had sea­sons where we just wanted to go sev­en in­nings as to not get 10-run ruled,” Larsen said. “One year it was a goal just to make it five in­nings. Now, we’ve earned this trip to Di­vi­sion A by run­ning the table last year. Guys have bought in. It’s a point of pride, be­cause we’ve worked hard to get here. We don’t want to just be res­id­ents … we want to be up there with the top teams. Right now, there’s no reas­on to doubt that, des­pite the two losses.”

The main reas­on why Larsen is thrilled about his pro­gram’s re-as­cen­sion to the top di­vi­sion is that it en­sures Lin­coln can nev­er really take a day off. In Di­vi­sion B, Lin­coln had some lop­sided vic­tor­ies, and Larsen would be­gin to see bad habits of an in­feri­or op­pon­ent rub­bing off on his own team. In the 13-team, 2014 ver­sion of Di­vi­sion A (there were eight teams in it a year ago), there is no such thing as a res­pite. 

“Win­ning the di­vi­sion was nice and the sea­son we had was nice,” Larsen said of his team’s 2013 cam­paign. “But it was un­fin­ished. We think that once we sort out some in­jur­ies and have all our cyl­in­ders fir­ing, we’ll be a team quite a few oth­ers won’t want to play.”

The Railsplit­ters are led by dy­nam­ic seni­or leadoff second base­man Eric Cin­tron, who is 10-for-19 at the plate and 5-for-5 in pro­du­cing multi-hit games so far this sea­son. Larsen called Cin­tron “a dirty play­er,” and meant it in only pos­it­ive ways, say­ing Cin­tron can man­u­fac­ture runs on his own the second he gets on base. The coach also gushed about his second base­man’s lead­er­ship abil­ity. 

There’s also seni­or third base­man/pitch­er Justin Carlson, who, while just 5-for-16 at the dish to start, has won all three of Lin­coln’s games on the mound, post­ing 24 strikeouts in 20 in­nings. Larsen called Carlson, who has a per­fect game un­der his belt, a “very good num­ber one pitch­er on a Di­vi­sion A team.” Oth­ers Larsen ex­pressed ex­cite­ment over were the afore­men­tioned Al­varez (on the shelf un­til at least next week with a hair­line frac­ture in his thumb) and his broth­er, Smith, who trans­ferred to Lin­coln after play­ing a sea­son at Frank­ford, where they were both Pub­lic League cham­pi­ons. Sopho­more catch­er Nick Houser is strong be­hind the plate and is a re­spec­ted lead­er, while ju­ni­or Cody Ulmer and sopho­more Jason Chattley are prom­ising, fin­esse arms Larsen can’t wait to see de­vel­op over the next sea­son or two on the mound.

“These guys, they have live arms and some have beau­ti­ful swings,” Larsen said. “We just have to get them to real­ize base­ball is a game that cen­ters around fail­ure. They are go­ing to fail more of­ten than they suc­ceed, so it’s my job to teach them how to re­spond to that.”

Against Es­per­anza on Fri­day, Lin­coln couldn’t pad its early 3-0 lead, and when its ag­gress­ive op­pon­ent roared back, the Railsplit­ters had no an­swers. However, the pro­gram is still un­doubtedly on an up­ward swing; des­pite an early-round play­off exit a sea­son ago, Lin­coln won all of its di­vi­sion games and even knocked off for­mid­able non-di­vi­sion foes such as Frank­ford, Cent­ral and Wash­ing­ton, so Larsen knows his group be­longs. He ex­pressed de­sire to be one of the top two Class AAAA schools in Di­vi­sion A, but also poin­ted out that Frank­ford won an­oth­er Pub­lic League base­ball title a year ago des­pite go­ing 5-8 in the di­vi­sion with five oth­er teams fin­ish­ing in front of them.

The mor­al of the story? Larsen knows any­one is cap­able of go­ing on a run, and in a long sea­son it’s not about how you start, but where you fin­ish. The old sport­ing cliche, “It’s a mara­thon, not a sprint,” still holds true in cer­tain oc­ca­sions.

“We’re in a dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tion than last year,” Larsen ad­mit­ted. “In 2013, we got on a roll and ran the table; in the back of our minds, we knew how hard we had to work just to make the play­offs. This year in ‘A,’ which is something we wanted, every team makes the play­offs, so we want to see if we can be amongst the top two AAAA teams in the di­vi­sion. Beat­ing Frank­ford and Cent­ral out of the chute told some teams who we are. I’m will­ing to teach the play­ers and put in the time in or­der for us to be com­pet­it­ive.”

Larsen, who has a good re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton coach Ken Geiser and Frank­ford boss Juan Namnun, is thrilled to be in the same di­vi­sion as two of his loc­al peers. He said he talks base­ball with Geiser nearly every night, and that he’s com­pli­men­ted Namnun’s pro­gram, say­ing it’s one Lin­coln wants to emu­late and rep­lic­ate to get to where Frank­ford has been quite a bit lately.

“Frank­ford has be­come the big dragon for every­one to slay,” Larsen said. “Win­ning against them only gives you con­fid­ence for down the road. Last sea­son, we went 11-0 and were one-and-done in the play­offs, while they won five games and went on a cham­pi­on­ship run. What do we want now? Carlson and Cin­tron both want to go far in the play­offs. We have two guys who played at Frank­ford last year and have been through it. So while I’m not happy over the two games we lost, I also un­der­stand we still have a ma­jor­ity of the sea­son to get through. Any­thing can hap­pen.”

Any­thing can hap­pen in­deed, in­clud­ing the Railsplit­ters be­ing the team that ul­ti­mately hoists the ul­ti­mate prize. For his part, Larsen is thrilled to where his team has pro­gressed, from a di­vi­sion bot­tom-feed­er that played all its games on the road a few years ago to a le­git­im­ate con­tender with one of the nicest base­ball fa­cil­it­ies in the area. 

Things, Larsen said, are cer­tainly on the up-and-up at Lin­coln.

“Know­ing where we came from, drop­ping down to Di­vi­sion B and really strug­gling, prac­ti­cing on ce­ment and hav­ing all road games … it’s ex­cit­ing,” he said. “Just hav­ing a home field, that does something for a pro­gram. I don’t really think we’re do­ing any­thing dif­fer­ent. We’re fo­cus­ing on just do­ing the right things.

“I tell these guys all the time that I want them to have a sense of pride in this pro­gram that, re­gard­less of score, people know we’re a team that does things right. If we fo­cus on do­ing things right, while the res­ult may not al­ways go our way, good things will come soon­er or later.” ••

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