It has been said that the saddest words of man and pen were "What might have been."
So it was for Kansas City Kansas Community College's 2017 baseball season. "We had a good season but take away five innings and it would have been a great season," says head coach Matt Goldbeck, whose Blue Devils (41-21) won 40 games for the second straight season.
In Jayhawk East play, the Blue Devils tied for third with a 24-12 record in a season in which they were just 5-10 in one-run decisions. Another five wins and the Blue Devils win the Jayhawk comfortably with a 29-7 record.
Pinpointing five games that got away is pretty easy. Actually, KCKCC's fate was probably decided in the first series of the season against Cowley College, which would go on to win both the Jayhawk East and Region VI and play in the NJCAA World Series.
After a split in the first two games of a four-game series, Cowley won twice at home, both in extra innings – 7-6 on back-to-back errors in the bottom of the eighth and 5-4 by scoring twice in the bottom of the eighth after KCKCC had gone ahead 4-3 in the top of the eighth. Those two games alone were the difference in KCKCC finishing 26-10 and Cowley 25-11.
Other season changers included a 14-13 loss at Labette in which the Blue Devils had gone ahead 13-11 in the top of the ninth only to have the Cardinals score three runs in the bottom of the inning. At Allen County, KCKCC had a 10-5 lead only to have the Red Devils force extra innings with five runs in the seventh and then win 11-10 in the eighth. And in a rare loss at home, Fort Scott rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh to hand KCKCC a 5-4 setback.
In the final series of the season, KCKCC knocked season-long leader Johnson County out of the championship by winning three of four games but the lone 4-3 loss came as a result of two unearned runs and a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth. And even in the super-regional, KCKCC had a 6-5 lead only to have Neosho score single runs in the seventh and eighth to win 7-6.
"On a probability chart, our chances were probably pretty good in those games," says Goldbeck. "A good season but four or five innings away from a very special season. Our shortstop, L.A. Woodard, missed six of the last eight games and we were 3-3 in those games which hurt. But as a group, this team was resilient in rebounding from tough losses. We also had some games in which we came from behind to win, especially the walk-off win against Garden City in the playoffs. We were real good at home (26-5), the starting pitching was good and we swung the bats pretty well."
Conference-wise, the Blue Devils won seven four-game series by taking three of four, split with Neosho County and lost three to Cowley. "Extremely proud of this group of players both on and off the field," said Goldbeck. "They took pride in everything we had them do, from fund-raising and class work to all the hard work they put in on the field."
Starting pitching was particularly outstanding as four sophomores made every conference start and as a staff the Blue Devils held foes to a .268 batting average. Jake Purl (8-3 with a 4.81 ERA) led in wins and was fifth in the Jayhawk in strikeout (87); southpaw Shea Stephens (6-4, 3.95) finished second in the league in strikeouts with 89; Turner's Corey Coran finished unbeaten (5-0) and had the low earned-run-average among starters at 3.32; and Chad Cox (4-3, 5.88) pitched 7.1 strong innings in the championship win over Garden City. Freshman Julian Rivera emerged late as the closer, finishing 3-1 with four saves and a 3.60 ERA. Stephens and Cowan were both All-Jayhawk second team selections; Purl and Rivera earned honorable mention.
Offensively, the Blue Devils had a lusty .326 team batting average with seven regulars hitting .300 or better led by first baseman Alex Phillips. KCKCC's lone All-Jayhawk first team selection, Phillips finished fourth in the conference in both hitting (.418) and RBI (72). He also led the team in home runs (10), extra base hits (32) and slugging (.683). "Anytime you hit .400 in this league, you've had a good year," said Goldbeck.
Outfielder Tyler Pittman, who led the conference in stolen bases with 31, was second in hitting at .383 and was named second team All-Jayhawk along with second baseman Easton Fortuna, who hit .332. Woodard, who was fifth in the league in stolen bases with 25, hit .372 and earned All-Jayhawk honorable mention along with outfielders Josh Schumacher (.365) and Chase Redick (.312), who was second on the team in home runs with seven and RBI with 42.
Rorey Combs, who finished third in hitting a .379, joined Pittman and Schumacher as the only freshmen to hit better than .300. Sophomore catcher Drew Holtgrieve hit. 295 and was third in RBI with 36 while freshman Brandon Green moved into the starting lineup at third midway through the season and hit. 286 with six home runs.
Graduation will hit hard, taking the entire starting pitching staff as well as the entire starting lineup with the exceptions of Pittman, Schumacher and Combs in the outfield and Green at third. On the other hand, 20 promising freshmen are waiting in the wings.