FAIRBORN — Wright State is accustomed to getting off to slow starts each baseball season.
When you’re playing non-league foes that routinely end up in the College World Series, you don’t expect to emerge with a glittering record.
But fifth-year coach Alex Sogard knew something was amiss when the Raiders dropped three straight games at Milwaukee in early April — the first time they’ve been swept in a series by a Horizon League team since Valparaiso did it in 2013.
They were 16-16, and other league teams no doubt sensed some vulnerability in the perennial champs.
“I think as a coach you just try to figure out ways you can improve the team. We all knew we were more talented than what we were doing. What do we have to do? Is it a lineup change? Is it a position change? Is it a change on the mound?” Sogard said.
“Those are conversations we have with our coaching staff. I’m fortunate I have a really good staff, and they all bring something positive to the table. Sometimes, it’s just trusting your guys and trusting the talent you have.”
The Raiders got healthier and have been bolstered by breakout seasons from relative newcomers.
Sophomore centerfielder Andrew Patrick set a program record for homers with 17 and is hitting .327 with 50 RBIs. He leads the league with 26 steals in 28 tries and was named first-team all-league Tuesday.
When short stop Justin Riemer was lost to a knee injury after 12 games, Sogard moved third-baseman Luke Arnold over a spot and inserted Patrick Fultz at third.
Arnold, a third-year sophomore from Lebanon, has been an ideal fit at short and is hitting .273, while Fultz, a league all-freshman team pick from Springfield Shawnee, is hitting .290 and has committed just four errors in 37 games.
Catcher Sammy Sass (.300 average, seven homers, 38 RBIs), first-baseman Jay Luikart (.304, 9, 35) and second-baseman Gehrig Anglin (.286, 9, 44) produced in the meat of the order while earning first-team all-league honors.
The starting staff also kept progressing with Sebastian Gongora (9-1, 2.87 ERA) being named HL pitcher of the year and Jake Shirk (5.5, 4.46) earning a first-team nod.
The Raiders (35-20) snagged their fifth-straight regular-season title. They’ve won 19 of their last 23 games, and they’ll head into the conference tourney with a mountain of momentum.
The first games are Wednesday at Nischwitz Stadium — (fourth-seeded) Youngstown State plays (5) Milwaukee at noon, and (3) Northern Kentucky faces (6) Purdue Fort Wayne at 4 p.m. — while top-seeded Wright State plays at 11 a.m. Thursday against the lowest remaining seed.
League foes can’t exactly be brimming with confidence playing at the park of the two-time defending champs.
The Raiders are 21-3 at home this year and 164-31 since 2015.
They went 3-0 in the tourney last year and outscored those opponents 56-7.
“We’re playing well at home,” Sogard said. “In baseball, anything can happen. On any given day, anyone can win. But at the end of the year, you want to be playing your best baseball, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Sogard, who was named HL coach of the year for the third time, is a former player himself, reaching as high as Class AAA as a pitcher in the Astros organization.
That’s helped him know what to say to his players — and what not to say.
“This game is so dominated by failure, somebody’s got to remind them how good they are. That’s my job,” he said.
“That’s what I try to do. I try to be positive with our guys. They’re the ones who have to go play, and I want them to be confident.”
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