Fastball

Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 11:45pm

Dylan Craig stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the 10th inning on Feb. 28 with a chance to produce one of those unforgettable baseball moments.

Tie game. Bases loaded.

The sophomore center fielder delivered the walk-off hit Belmont needed that day to defeat Eastern Illinois, but it wasn’t exactly a moment that will live in his memory forever — for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, he did not trot around the bases in celebration of a grand slam. In fact, he barely got the ball out of the infield.

“I was looking for a pitch inside and drove it straight down into the ground,” Craig said. “It ended up bouncing over the second baseman’s head.”

Then there’s the fact that, as far as the early part of the 2010 season in concerned, a clutch individual performance and victory by the slimmest of margins — 12-11 in this case — was just another day for the Bruins.

Like every other local college, Belmont’s weekends are now occupied with conference games, but no other team in Middle Tennessee — possibly anywhere, for that matter — enjoyed the kind of non-conference season Craig and his teammates did.

They set a school record with 10 straight victories to open the season. Six of those triumphs, including five in a row, were by a single run, and the other four were by two runs. Only eight other teams in Division I opened the season with at least 10 straight wins.

After they won their second straight Atlantic Sun series when they took two of three from USC Upstate (March 26 and 27), the Bruins were 15-10, and 11 of their 15 victories had been by one or two runs. Similarly, three of their defeats were by a lone run.

“Our competitive spirit and our competitive performance have been extremely good,” Coach Dave Jarvis said. “We’ve been behind a lot of times this year, and our kids have never gotten shaken, never gotten rattled.

“Even games that we’ve ended up losing, we’ve come from behind and made it extremely close at the end.”

Belmont opened with a three-game series against Evansville and won the opener 8-6. Then came a string of one-run victories beginning with a 13-12 win. That one ended when Nate Woods scored from third base on a strikeout/passed ball with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

On Feb. 27, a six-run eighth inning, which included a two-run home run by Woods, lifted the Bruins to an 8-7 victory over Eastern
Illinois. They scored the final three runs — one in the eighth, two in the ninth — of a 15-14 victory over Eastern Michigan, which ran their win streak to nine games.

“We have a lot of guys who keep fighting, and we haven’t given up very often,” Woods, a junior pitcher/first baseman, said. “We have a great group of guys playing together, and when we all play together it’s pretty spectacular, I think, and we’re all right on cue.”

Much like Craig’s game-winning hit against Eastern Illinois, there was much about those first 10 games that was not necessarily pretty — other than the outcomes, of course.

Three times Belmont had to score more than 10 runs just to win by one. Opponents scored five or more runs in nine of the first 10, and the defense committed 20 errors, including seven in one game, during that stretch.

“In all honesty, in those first 10 games, our pitching and defense didn’t always perform well enough to win, but we were able to rally and offensively overcome some of those deficits that we made through poor pitching and defense,” Jarvis said. “That’s what allowed us to win those first 10 ball games.

“… I knew that I liked our team mentality and the character of the team, but it all really has to come out through the course of the season.”

This year’s Belmont team has only four seniors, including shortstop Packy Elkins, who last month became the school’s all-time leader in walks. Graduation took four pitchers and three starting infielders from the 2009 squad that went 29-29 overall, 15-15 (sixth place) in conference.

The bulk of the top performers, therefore, are in the sophomore and junior classes. Craig was a freshman All-American and the A-Sun Freshman of the Year in 2009, and he was hitting .448 through the first 21 games this season. Woods has come back from an injury-shortened 2009 to provide a big bat: seven home runs, 34 RBIs in 21 games. Junior catcher Matt Zeblo started 100 games in his first two seasons, and junior Derek Hamblen, one of four players who started all 58 games last season, has played multiple positions throughout his career.

“It’s not individuals in this game; you work together,” Craig said. “One guy gets on base, the next one follows and follows and follows. I think we’ve done a really good job at that, especially those first 10 games, because we came from behind four times.”

Of course, in those first 10 games this year’s Belmont team got a type of experience none other — senior-laden or otherwise — ever did.

“We just played the game and went on to the next one,” Craig said. “It didn’t really matter how many we won. It was just that baseball game we were playing at the time. We wanted to win that game.

“You look back on it and you’re like, ‘Wow, we won 10 in a row.’ Something was working right there and clicking together.”