- By Doug Harris Contributing Writer
Wright State baseball coach Jeff Mercer knows his players won’t always be happy with him, and he’s OK with that.
Like his predecessors in the program, Mercer believes in stockpiling as many good hitters as possible. And though having a loaded roster means some Raiders aren’t getting as many at-bats as they’d like, the top teams are usually the ones where the starters are being pushed.
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“What makes us successful, first and foremost, is that we’ve got 13 or 14 guys who can really hit,” Mercer said. “We’ve found when you’ve got a lot of competition, it’s really going to drive the success of the group. While in the moment it can be frustrating for the individual, it also brings out the best in that player.”
The Raiders (36-15), who are hosting the Horizon League tourney this week, easily lead the conference in runs at 7.75 per game, a pace that would put them second in school history behind the 8.05 average of the 2010 team.
But Mercer is no Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager who had a love affair with the three-run homer. The Raiders rely on a speedy lineup stocked with quality hitters, most of whom are left-handed. That gives them an edge since most pitchers are right-handed.
They’re first in the conference with a .296 team average and 100 steals (in 116 attempts). But their 39 homers are 21 fewer than league-leader Northern Kentucky.
“I’m not big on home runs or bust,” said Mercer, a former Raiders star who is in his second year as coach. “We want guys with high on-base percentages, guys who will walk and guys who will hit the ball in the gaps and run.
“Our players have had a lot of college at-bats. And we’re very left-handed and can really get down the line. You just don’t have time to bobble a ball. You can’t double-clutch because we run so well and will beat it out. And we steal so many bases that it’s really difficult for pitchers to get settled.”
The Raider are 10th nationally in stolen bases, and their 86-percent success rate is one of the best in program history.
Junior J.D. Orr is sixth in the country with 32 stolen bases in 36 attempts. Zach Weatherford, a junior from Northmont, set the school record with 36 last season and is 16-for-16 this year.
Mercer credits assistant Matt Talarico for the aggressive baserunning. Talarico, who joined the staff in 2015 after a lengthy stint at Dayton, has his own website, “Stealbases.com.”
“I never understood the power of the stolen base until we were fortunate to have coach Talarico join us,” Mercer said. “He really is the preeminent authority on base-stealing in the country.
“I just wanted to have great athletes to play great defense. But he’s taken over the base-running, and it’s an absolute core principle of our offense.”
The top-seeded Raiders play in the double-elimination league tourney at 11 a.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Oakland and Youngstown State.
The Raiders have made the NCAA tourney as a conference champ in 1994, 2006, ‘09, ‘11, ’15 and ’16. They missed out last year after losing two tight games to UIC.
“Our ultimate goal is always to go back to the NCAA tournament. And I’m not going to shy away from saying that we’ve talked a lot, and we have goals of winning our regional and going to the Super Regional and beyond,” Mercer said.
“We have the talent to make a serious run at doing those things. But we have to take care of our business, starting with the very first pitch of the conference tournament.”