There’s a rhythm inherent to a college baseball season.
Players get used to having similar off-days in between contests, and coaches come to rely on having their pitching rotations and lineups the way they want heading into a weekend of games.
The UW-La Crosse baseball team has had its preferred rhythm for about 2 seconds this season.
Mother Nature dumping mid-April rain and snow across the Midwest and then not heating up enough to dry out fields to playable levels has created a situation in which the Eagles will play 21 games in 25 days, starting with a Tuesday doubleheader against UW-Stout. Even those games are in doubt due to the nearly 10 inches of snow expected to be dumped on Menomonie, Wis., over the weekend.
La Crosse’s gauntlet run to end the regular season is something Eagles coach Chris Schwarz said will be a test of his team’s focus.
“We’re definitely used to spring in Wisconsin,” Schwarz said of the postponed games. “We talk a lot about attitude and effort and worrying about what you can control. If your attitude stinks because of something you can’t control, like the weather, it’s just not going to work.”
UW-L has the advantage of playing at La Crosse’s Copeland Park, which has a turf playing surface that dries quickly. But it has still had multiple home games postponed this year due to snow. On Friday, the WIAC announced it cancelled its conference tournament in order to give teams an extra weekend to get delayed conference games played.
The Eagles were slated to play UW-Whitewater in a pair of doubleheaders this weekend, but moved them to May 11-12 — dates originally scheduled for the conference tourney.
A big reason the conference nixed the tournament was because its winner would no longer receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament. After UW-Superior left the conference in 2016, the WIAC was still getting an automatic qualifier for a two-year grace period. The league added Illinois Tech for baseball only, but still needs to add another program to get back to automatic-bid level.
The change has added extra emphasis on scheduling strong nonconference opponents and winning games against conference foes, Schwarz said.
“Plan A had always been win the conference tournament. Now Plan A is about scheduling the best teams in the country,” said Schwarz, who is the program’s winningest coach with a career record of 333-242 (.579 winning percentage). “We’re going to end up with one of the best strengths of schedule in the country, and that means a lot when it comes to the playoffs.
“Obviously, we’ve still got to go out and win these games.”
Of the team’s 21 games remaining, 18 are against WIAC opponents — UW-L is scheduled to play St. Thomas on April 27 and a doubleheader against Saint Mary’s (Minn.) on April 28. The final two weeks of the season, La Crosse will play Stout twice, Oshkosh four times and Whitewater four times.
Schwarz said that ideally, the team won’t have to start its fifth and sixth starters in those games, but he said the Eagles won’t risk a top-four starter’s health by starting him on short rest.
There was a discussion Friday among WIAC teams on whether remaining conference doubleheaders should be a pair of seven-inning tilts instead of nine innings. Schwarz says conference coaches were split on the issue, but will continue to play nine-inning games.
“To me, college baseball is a nine-inning game. It’s what you’re going to see in the postseason,” Schwarz said.
The weather hasn’t affected just games — a growing number of UW-L’s practices have had to move indoors as well. And with the baseball, softball, tennis and track and field teams juggling indoor practice space and times, Schwarz said flexibility has been crucial. For example, baseball has had a handful of later-evening practices than it ever would under normal conditions.
There’s only so much a baseball team can practice indoors — “How many times can we practice our regular bunt defense?” Schwarz joked. He said the coaching staff has tried to develop different drills to avoid monotony from setting in, but the team is getting a little stir-crazy.
“If we keep going inside, you’re going to see a position player versus pitchers Whiffle ball game break out,” Schwarz said.