Winthrop baseball is looking to prolong a solid start to league play this weekend.
Winthrop (12-14, 4-2 Big South) hosts UNC Asheville (8-16, 2-4) with a chance to remain in first place in the Big South Conference’s South Division. The Eagles have won nine of their past 11 against the Bulldogs, dating back to 2009, but will have to contend with wet weather promised for Saturday. Tom Riginos hopes to start Saturday’s game at 2:30 p.m., but may have to push a game in the series back to Monday if necessary.
The Eagles started conference play by taking two games out of three from Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina. Winthrop’s 4-2 start in the Big South is its best since the 2009 team went 6-1 in its first seven conference games. That squad finished 35-25 and 18-9 in the Big South, and there is real belief that this group will get back to the conference tournament for the first time since 2011. That’s doubly important considering Winthrop Ballpark is hosting the event beginning May 21.
“We don’t think about what happened the last two years or getting to the conference tournament,” said Riginos. “The only thing we’re worried about is the series, we want to win every series. It’s been a key for us to win our first two series, on the road, and against Southern Division teams.”
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Riginos’ group is in a good patch of form, but this season hasn’t been a massive turnaround campaign, at least yet. The Eagles suffered a seven-game losing streak during the first 12 days of March, and the team’s .235 batting average is still worst in the league. Winthrop is again relying on pitching in most cases to grind out wins. There have been exceptions, such as the 11-3 win over Coastal Carolina last weekend, but performances like lefty Sam Kmiec’s 13-strikeout complete game in a 3-2 win over Gardner-Webb on March 14 have been more common.
That trend continued when Winthrop beat nationally-ranked North Carolina 3-1 on Wednesday in Chapel Hill thanks in large part to a strong combined pitching effort from starter Zach Sightler, who went 5.1 innings and allowed one earned run in the win; and Josh Strong who picked up the save after 3.2 innings of two-hit work.
One bat has been hot, though. Redshirt junior outfielder T.J. Olesczuk leads the league in batting, .432, among the players with at least 50 at-bats. He’s continued his form from an injury-shortened 2013 when he was swinging the bat well before going down with a herniated disc in his back. Sitting out helped him get a different look at his batting approach.
“I was able to see where I was making mistakes previously when I was younger,” said Olesczuk, who has a team-high 14 RBIs. “Now I’ve been able to apply it and not try to do too much. Not try to hit a home run every time.”
Olesczuk posited that a number of his struggling teammates have been trying to do too much with their sticks.
“You don’t need to be the hero,” he said. “Our guys are starting to pick that up.”
Experience at the plate is something the team is developing at-bat by at-bat. The Eagles have just five seniors, 12 juniors and 18 underclassmen. Olesczuk has shown what a more patient, measured plate approach can produce. He doubled twice and knocked in three runs in the Eagles’ 11-3 win that sealed the Coastal series last weekend in Conway. It was Winthrop’s first series win over the Chanticleers since 2011.
“That was a huge confidence booster, especially on the road,” said Olesczuk. “We’re neck and neck with them in the standings and now we know we’ve got the tie-breaker against them if it comes down to that.”
Riginos wants that confidence to translate to more Big South success.
“We’re trying to get on a streak,” he said. “I know yesterday at practice we had a lot of confidence. Hopefully, going into tomorrow, if we play tomorrow, that we’re gonna have some confidence, especially from the offensive standpoint.”
League scheduling was kind to Winthrop. Whether the Big South Conference did that on purpose because the school is hosting the conference tournament or not will likely never be known, but the Eagles avoided Campbell and Liberty from the North Division, the Big South’s two best teams this season. That should help Winthrop as it chases the postseason. The top two teams in each division qualify automatically for the Big South tournament, and then the next four best teams round out the tournament, regardless of division.
“Our goal has always been to get to the conference tournament, and then win it,” said Olesczuk. “Everyone came here to win a conference tournament and then go to a regional. We’re definitely focused and we believe this our year to take Winthrop back to a regional.”