Offense has been the name of the game for the Delta State University Statesmen this baseball season.
The Statesmen lead the Gulf South Conference in batting average (.334), on-base percentage (.432), slugging percentage (.512), hits (548), home runs (64), RBIs (405), runs scored (444) and hit by pitches (88). They are also second in walks (221) and have struck out the fewest times (220) of any team in the conference. In fact, they’re the only team in the conference that has walked more than struck out.
Nationally, they’re tied for fourth with Illinois-Springfield in runs scored. They’re fourth in on-base percentage, fourth in hit by pitches, sixth in hits, seventh in batting in average, 16th in home runs and tied for 23rd with Spring Hill and St. Thomas Aquinas in walks.
The offense has catapulted DSU (38-8) to a No. 1 seed in the GSC Tournament. The Statesmen are ranked third in the Collegiate Baseball National Poll, 10th in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Poll and third in the NCAA Division II South Region Poll.
DSU will play their first game of the GSC Tournament Saturday night against eighth seeded West Alabama (20-25).
Delta State head coach Mike Kinnison was proud of the offense particularly of the way they get on base while keeping the strikeouts to a minimum.
"We work at all of those elements," Kinnison said. "We try to not take things for granted in regard to those areas and try to be consistent in the way we re-enforce those areas. The offensive capability and the offensive stats and numbers are cumulative of the whole season. What matters now is what we do at the appointed time. What matters now is can we duplicate that 8:30 Saturday night, and we've got to do it against good pitching."
To rack up those remarkable numbers, it’s taken a collective effort from the starters in the line-up. Most of that damage has come from the team’s top five hitters in the line-up.
The lead-off hitter is senior center fielder Jason Popovich (.323 avg., 3 HR, 44 RBIs), the second hitter on the line-up card is second baseman Emil Ellis (.404 avg., 2 HR, 36 RBIs), the three hole hitter is senor designated hitter Brian Lane (.333 avg., 8 HR, 52 RBIs), the clean-up batter is Zack Shannon (.434 avg., 28 HR, 82 RBIs) and the No. 5 hitter in the line-up is right fielder Clay Casey (.351 avg., 15 HR, 62 RBIs).
Popovich said the key to the team’s success is the way everyone feeds off each other.
“I think it’s a hitting is contagious kind of thing,” Popovich said. “Then, you’ve got the three, four, five that I would put up against any three, four, five in the country. When one person gets it’s going, everybody feeds off of it and it’s like an energy thing.”
Popovich, Shannon, Lane, Ellis and Casey, along with catcher Josh Russell (.265 avg., 21 RBIs), shortstop Justin Nussbaum (.319 avg., 1 HR 24 RBIs), third baseman Nick Morgan (.295 avg., 2 HR, 29 RBIs) and left fielder Juwan Burney (.330 avg., 10 RBIs) all started last season.
Ellis, who has an on-base percentage of .517 and leads the team in walks with 32, said each player understands his role on the team.
“I think everybody knew we pretty much had our entire line-up coming back,” Ellis said. “We added some new pieces to help with depth and things like that. We pretty much had the whole line-up coming back from last year. Coach talks a lot about having those table-setters, the one-two guys get on base for the middle of the line-up so those guys can drive us in.
“Me and Jason Popovich, that’s kind of our whole is get on base for Brian Lane, Zack Shannon, Clay Casey and the guys behind them. We just try to pass the stick as much as we can in the line-up.”
Lane said he tries to stay within himself when he’s hitting.
“I don’t try to do too much,” Lane said. “I look for gap shots — doubles and singles. If a home run comes, it comes. I just really get on base for Zack Shannon and Clay Casey to drive me in.”
Shannon has set the team home run record in home runs and is one home run from tying the state record of 29, which was accomplished by Mississippi State's Bruce Castoria (1981) and Rafael Palmeiro (1984).
Shannon more than understands what his role is as a clean-up hitter.
“You’ve got to produce and drive in runs,” Shannon said. “Those guys get on in front of you and it’s your role to drive those guys in and keep innings going.”
Shannon has drawn 30 walks this year with 10 of those walks intentional.
Casey, who is second on the team in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage, explained what his role is.
"It's the same as Shannon's, he just gets more opportunity for it," Casey said with a smile. "I’m okay with it, because he's the best hitter in the game right now. Whenever he rarely fails, I just pick it up. When they intentionally walk him, I get my chance to get an RBI. I try to take advantage of that when I can."
Casey added that with the on-base percentages on the team, there's a shot for everyone in the line-up to drive somebody in.
"Our lead-off guy has 44 RBIs, so that tells you our seven, eight and nine are getting on base," Casey said. "There's no holes in the line-up. When we're clicking, we're the best line-up in the country by far. Everybody gets a chance at a RBI."