Players on SRJC's baseball team compare bruises. They compare the size, the depth, the ugliness, when a pitched ball hits their flesh. Most junior college men will take out a photos of their girlfriends from their wallet to show a bud. An SRJC baseball player will roll up his sleeve, reveal that oh-so-attractive black-and-blue skin color and say, "Ain't she a beauty?"
And: "This is MY bruise and you can't have it."
"We say it either hits us or we hit it," said outfielder Ryan Xepoleas, who comes across as a veritable philosopher-king when it comes to talking about getting hit by a pitch.
"We wear the pitch," Xepoleas said. The Bear Cubs wear the pitch proudly, 110 times they have been hit in 41 games. SRJC is playing for the state championship this weekend at Fresno City College and how SRJC got there has so little to do with the kind of offense we see every night on ESPN's baseball highlights. The Bear Cubs hit only five homers all season.
"You have to dig a little deeper to see how we win," said SRJC head coach Damon Neidlinger.
Dig to this spot: SRJC averages nearly three hit batters per game. Whether the opposing pitcher is throwing unhittable gas or lollipops up there, that's a guaranteed three runners on base. That's three runners who minimized or disregarded completely a basic human response: the avoidance of pain.
"You don't have to be 6-foot-5, 300 pounds to wear a pitch," said Xepoleas, 5-foot-8, 175 pounds. One doesn't have to be large, he is saying, to be tough. The Bear Cubs stand in the batter's box, presenting themselves like those pop-up targets you see at county fairs. See if you can throw a ball and hit us. We dare you. In fact, we double dare you. We'll make it easy for you. We'll just stand there waiting for you.
"I think Ryan's knees might be over home plate when he takes his stance," said catcher Spencer Neve of SRJC's leadoff hitter.
Hovering around home plate like a mother bear surrounding her babies, SRJC is sending an unmistakable message. They are marking their territory. This is their attitude. This is their aggression. SRJC will push and push and push and, you bet, they have smiled with what their aggression has produced: A hit batter steals second, goes to third on a wild pitch and comes home on a sacrifice fly.
The little things lead to the big things. The Bears Cubs are successful stealing 86 percent of the time, 63 out of 73 attempts. Couple those thefts with a patient, disciplined hitter who is willing to give up his body ... and the next thing you know there's a runner on second base who got there without a single.
If this offense sounds familiar, it's because the Oakland A's at one point popularized it. "Small ball" it was called. The Billy Beane theory of flooding the bases with patient hitters who work walks and hit by pitches, all to make the other team nervous, works well for Neidlinger's crew. They know who they are.