In the first game of the season, the Elon University baseball team led by three runs over the University of Cincinnati entering the ninth inning.
Elon head coach Mike Kennedy remarked then about the competitive spirit he saw in the dugout when his team faced adversity late in the game. But recently, that liveliness has disappeared.
The Phoenix hit a skid in which it lost seven of nine games, including an ugly four-game losing streak that included a road loss to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a sweep by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
In those four games, the Phoenix was outscored 40-15.
“We were playing from behind most of the time,” senior second baseman Sebastian Gomez said. “We didn’t overcome adversity well.”
Those losses were a microcosm of Elon’s shortcomings this season: inconsistent pitching, errors and untimely hitting.
After getting swept by UNCG, Elon’s midweek game against Coastal Carolina University was canceled because of the weather. Not being on the field much during the week gave Elon a chance to take a step back and refocus.
“We wanted to get back on the field and play,” Kennedy said. “You want to get rid of that bad feeling and that bad taste. We did a lot of sitting and talking, kind of like a classroom setting. We benefitted from that.”
Kennedy preached “play the game, not the score” to his team during the off days and reiterated the same thing before Elon’s series opener against Davidson College May 2.
Kennedy said the message was intended for the pitching staff, which saw its share of bumps in the road during Southern Conference play, as the Phoenix prepared to face the SoCon’s top team. But it translated to the entire team, and Elon was able to snap the losing streak with an 8-5 win.
Elon trailed 4-0 after the top of the first but had the lead by the fourth inning.
“What I like most about [this game] is we got down early, and we could have easily rolled over,” Kennedy said, “But some toughness showed. We showed a lot of grit and determination, and that’s the biggest thing I’ll take away. We stayed the course and kept plugging away.”
But Elon regressed back to its old ways in the second game of the three-game series against Davidson May 3. After taking a 2-0 lead in the first, Elon surrendered five runs in the second and never recovered en route to a 9-2 loss.
Afterwards, players and coaches pointed toward an unlively atmosphere in the dugout as a point of concern.
“It felt like we weren’t in the game the whole time,” junior designated hitter Chris King said. “[Davidson] putting up runs right back on us in the second put the energy down. The dugout wasn’t as loud or energetic as it needed to be. That’s contagious, so it carried on.”
Less than three months after energy from the dugout gave Elon a season-opening win, the lack of spirit proved to be another shortcoming.
“We try every day to get going and have positive energy,” outfielder Casey Jones said. “We need someone to step up, spark the plug for us and get it going. We just need one spark, one game where we all break out.”
Elon won six straight games between March 28 and April 4, before losing two straight and then winning its next three. Since then, the Phoenix has lost nine of 12 and struggled in more than one area.
“We haven’t been this bad in a long time,” Jones said.
Pitching was a strength early in the season, as junior starters Lucas Bakker and Jake Stalzer combined to win four straight SoCon Pitcher of the Week awards. But the staff has struggled lately, forcing Kennedy to shuffle pitchers into different roles, both in the bullpen and in the rotation.
Hitting carried the team for a while, but the Phoenix is averaging less than four runs per game in its last six contests.
“That’s the biggest frustration,” Kennedy said. “How different we are from day to day energy-wise. That’s a problem. We’re good at times, and we’re very average at times. If we can’t sure that up, in terms of our energy and passion for the game, we’re going to have more days like we’re having right now.”
With the SoCon Tournament on the horizon, each game means more, and any run could be the difference in seeding. Attitude and energy contribute to that on another level as well.
“You are what you repeatedly do,” Kennedy said. “Maybe we’re average. We show a good day, then we’ll show a bad one.”
Elon has never finished worse than fourth in the SoCon standings. Currently, the Phoenix is tied for fourth with three conference games remaining — May 9-11 on the road at Furman University.
As the season opener showed, dugout atmosphere could be the difference between having a good day or a bad day. Channeling that energy and putting it into play on the field could mean another run at a SoCon Tournament Championship.