Bearcats clawing their way through roller coaster season

Spectacular season? Not so far.

Spectacular timing? The OTC Bearcats have that down pat.

The local entry in the Sunbelt Baseball League plays its home games at Strong Rock Christian in Locust Grove. It's a summer league where the bats are wooden and the players are culled predominantly from the rosters of colleges all over the state, and the Bearcats were a pedestrian 11-10 going into Thursday night's road game against the Douglasville Bulls, the league's top team at 20-3.

But that's the surface view. To see what's going on with the Bearcats, and why they carry themselves with an optimism that a cursory inspection hardly justifies, one must look a little closer.

"I don't think our starting nine has suited up this year," said Bearcats manager Dion Lowe. "But for a team that always has someone injured or someone that can't play because they have to go to work, to be in the playoffs as the fourth or fifth seed says that we must be doing something right."

The Bearcats get great support at home from the people at Strong Rock. The media and events coordinator at the school, Mike Crawford, serves as the team's general manager — though that's more of a glorified title than the term normally suggests. He's not out there wheeling and dealing, making trades for the stretch run. It's not an advisory position in team affairs at all.

He makes sure the field's ready, does a little public address announcing, even runs the scoreboard.

"Organizing everything from batting practice to turning the lights off when they're done," Crawford said. "But it's a great outreach for what we do at Strong Rock."

Every little bit helps when you're trying to make the playoffs. In the nine-team Sunbelt League, made up of three divisions, the top two teams in the East, Central and West divisions qualify for the postseason. The top two teams get a first-round bye, while those who remain vie to advance to the second round.

The Bearcats' timing is spectacular because only now, with the postseason a week away, are they reaching full health. They have survived pulled hamstrings, broken bones and even a torn kneecap and continue to soldier on gamely.

"We're finally back where we should be," Lowe said. "We have all our players and it's a good feeling."

They also have, Lowe's estimation, the league's most valuable player in Orrin McFadden, a Jacksonville State sophomore who just got through going 2 for 4 with a triple in last Saturday's Sunbelt League All-Star game at Oglethorpe University. Lowe's contention would certainly be disputed Todd Pratt, the former major leaguer who manages the Bulls. Pratt might tout Brian York, one of the astounding number of SBL All-Stars — 11, including a last-minute addition — on his roster.

On the SBL web site, which relies on teams to help keep up, York was listed as the league leader in home runs, with six, and RBIs, with 21. Lowe says McFadden is close, though all his team's stats haven't been entered.

"Here's the thing about that," Lowe said on the phone Thursday, presumably within earshot of the Bulls as he answered. "Brian York hasn't hit the ball out of the infield against us. The next ball he hits that goes past third base will be the first. Not that my pitchers have mentioned that."

Here's the other thing about the Bearcats and their spectacular timing. The Bulls won their first eight games this season. Guess who was the first to beat them, 5-3 in Locust Grove?

"Exactly — and we should've won the second game against them, too," Lowe said, thinking back to a 3-2 loss on June 30. "That still bothers me. We had them beat, but either the umpires grew blind or I was unaware that they could not see before the game."

The Bearcats are led on the mound Emmett Goodman and Andy Threat, who just returned to the team after three weeks on the disabled list. David Randall has been their reliable set-up man, bridging the gap singlehandedly to closer Mike Venturelli, who has saved four of the team's 11 victories. Randall and Venturelli also were All-Stars, and as Lowe said, "Our kids held their own."

But what really will count is whether the Bearcats can hold their own, can hold together healthwise long enough to try to give the Bulls a run for their money. They are supposed to meet them again next Tuesday at Strong Rock in a game that was suspended in the fourth inning, tied at 1-1, because of lightning.

At present, it might be a game that will help determine the Bearcats' playoff seeding. The Bulls don't need it, having secured the league's top seed and a first-round bye.

Whatever happens, it's clear that the Bearcats aren't intimidated the Bulls. Nor do they confess to targeting them as a possible playoff opponent.

"Not at all," Lowe said. "Now that the team is back and jelling, whoever we play we're going to be competitive against."

(Darryl Maxie covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry D)