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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.

"We don't have a lot of superstar guys," said Neve, who went to Petaluma High School. "Doesn't bother us. We are unselfish. We'll do whatever it takes."

There's a lot of "we'll do whatever it takes" that goes around the team. Baseball is an individual sport played by a team and too many examples exist of ego getting in the way of things. It's human nature to be impacted by success, to find oneself with a foot off the throttle. The Bear Cubs are 33-7-1 in the toughest baseball conference in California. Human nature has been tempted by such success.

A runner won't sprint down the first base line on a sure-out ground ball. A fielder won't jog out to his position. A hitter will shrug if he misses a sign. Like a hawk Neidlinger watches for anything that smells like complacency and delivers an immediate and stern response.

"You want to play baseball the right way or the wrong way?" Neidlinger will say in confronting his team. He knows his words might shock.

"The players could say: &‘Hey, coach, what's the problem? We just won the game,'" Neidlinger said. "But you have to have kids from truthful households who can hear that. I have those kinds of kids. I am being factual and you are being responsible."

Man- up, Neidlinger is saying. Playing the game the right way is not a part-time thing or a when-I-feel-like-it thing. Winning can't be turned on or off whenever someone feels like it. That lesson was driven home in SRJC's first playoff game, the regional against Los Medanos. SRJC was the No. 1 seed, Medanos No. 18. SRJC lost the first game and had to play and win the next two against Los Medanos to advance to the Super Regional; which it did.

"It was a wake-up call," said pitcher Tyler Sanders.

Did Los Medanos do SRJC a favor?

"I think so," Sanders said.

SRJC was reminded that championship teams must pay attention. All the time. There are no concentration timeouts in baseball. There are only examples of what can happen when the mind doesn't wander. Like March 26. Against Diablo Valley College. The game is tied in the bottom of the ninth. Xepoleas is on third base. The SRJC hitter is being intentionally walked to load the bases.

In that situation it's not uncommon for the runner on third base to relax. Possibly taking in some pretty sights sitting in the third base stands. Possibly talking to the third base coach. It's an intentional walk, for criminy sakes. What can happen? Xepoleas, however, didn't relax. When the DVC catcher missed a wide pitch, the ball rolling all the way to the backstop, Xepoleas sprinted and scored the winner.

He scored on a passed ball from an intentional walk. Game over.

How lucky for SRJC, you might say. You usually don't score the winning run on a passed ball while the pitcher is throwing an intentional walk. That's true. But what also is true is this: You make your own luck. That's why Neidlinger likes this team. They make their own luck. They have the bruises to prove it.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.