Missed projection: Defending champions get bogged down in mediocrity

Published 8:00 am Thursday, June 1, 2023

Winning raises exceptions and changes perspectives.

Over recent years the McNeese State baseball team has done its share of winning, and thus the expectations have been raised.

With the bar set high, the Cowboys entered this year as the preseason favorite to win a second consecutive Southland Conference championship.

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The Cowboys never were able to live up to those lofty expectations.

Instead, they suffered through a roller-coaster spring that had its share of moments but not enough big ones. It was a season that was done in by a slip here or a trip there.

“We didn’t always play our best,” said McNeese head coach Justin Hill. “It was one of those years.”

The Cowboys finished 35-23, the second-best record in Hill’s 10 years at the helm, but were 12-12 in the league and finished tied for fifth with two other teams. While they were 25-12 at Joe Miller Ballpark, McNeese was 10-11 on the road.

The Cowboys did win 12 straight at home in the early going, but were 2-2 at The Jeaux during the SLC Tournament they hosted last week.

McNeese did get an incredible year out of ace right-hander Grant Rogers. The junior, who graduated in May, finished with a program-record 12 wins in 13 decisions. He had a 1.82 earned run average in 15 starts, 13 of which the Cowboys won.

“He was that guy for us,” Hill said. “He had an amazing year. He gave us a chance to win every time out.”

Rogers was named the SLC’s Pitcher of the Year for a second consecutive season, becoming the second hurler in league history to achieve that honor.

“I didn’t know if I would be better,” Rogers said. “I just wanted to go out there and give us a chance to win.”

Rogers led a pitching staff that never had a true rotation or bullpen, but Hill managed to piece together a group that finished second in the SLC with a 4.29 ERA.

The Cowboys threw eight shutouts but were not shut out, averaging 6.34 runs per game as the second-highest scoring team in the SLC.

“We had a lot of guys step up at times,” Hill said.

What was surprising was the offense lacked any rhythm. McNeese hit 48 homers and scored 368 runs, far fewer than the year before the Cowboys finished with 59 and 440, respectively.

With a strong defense it is clear the lack of timely hits and inconsistent offense were the major issue.

Ironically, McNeese was 34-23 in 2022 when the team was praised.

The lack of clutch hits was the key to any struggles.

Payton Harden hit .378 and Brad Burckel finished with a .373 average in 2022. This spring they hit .281 and .283, respectively. They were not alone in having down years.

Josh Leslie was the lone Cowboy who played the majority of both seasons who hit over .300 this year, finishing at .313 with 57 runs batted in.

McNeese will have to retool next year after losing a large portion of its roster this season. That seems to be the challenge for a program that has become one of the best in the Southland.

Still, that has become the new reality.