By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — Tayler Sheriff understands the what-ifs that can come with the end of the baseball season.
But the Western Illinois head coach knows his team had a chance to reach the Summit League tournament in the final weekend of the regular season, and that’s a good start for a rebuilding program.
The Leathernecks lost to conference regular-season champion Oral Roberts 12-0 in eight innings in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Western Illinois finished the season 12-40 overall, 8-16 in the Summit League, finishing in a tie with Northern Colorado for fifth place in the conference, 1 1/2 games behind fourth-place Omaha, which secured the final spot in next week’s conference tournament.
Western Illinois won just eight games last season, five in conference play.
“Twelve wins was good, it certainly wasn’t the big jump we were hoping for from the previous year,” Sheriff said. “But we kind of laid the foundation, took some baby steps forward, and hopefully make that big jump moving forward into next year.”
The Leathernecks lost two games of a three-game series at Omaha earlier this month, losing the Saturday game 11-8 and the Sunday game 3-2. Those were among the what-ifs Sheriff said his team had, but he also said that series was start of a late run that included five wins in six games against St. Thomas last week.
“Down the stretch, we played some good baseball dating back to the Omaha series, where we lose two of three,” he said. “Saturday was a close game, Sunday was a one-run game, and then we go rip off five wins against St. Thomas.
“There’s one or two games here and there where you can look back and say, ‘Man, if we could have got one here or there, it’s a different story.’ Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to get in. But we put ourselves into position. And when you’re in a program where you’re rebuilding, we said all year about putting ourselves into position in games, and eventually we’ll break through.”
The Leathernecks knew they needed two wins this weekend, but they were going to have to do it against Oral Roberts (43-11, 22-1). A 7-4 loss on Thursday was another one of those what-ifs — the two teams were tied at 3 after seven innings before the Golden Eagles scored three in the eighth — then a 12-2 loss on Friday ended any postseason hopes.
This game got out of hand when Oral Roberts scored six runs in a fourth inning that started when Western Illinois starter Jake Armstrong walked three batters and hit another.
“Four straight free passes, you’re setting yourself up for disaster,” Sheriff said. “It was kind of a weird situation, (Armstrong) doesn’t give up free passes a lot. We just left some stuff out there in the inning.”
The Leathernecks couldn’t generate any offense against four Oral Roberts pitchers. Starter Brooks Fowler (8-1) allowed just one hit over five innings, then Western Illinois could only get two singles over the final three.
“I think we’ve laid the foundation, as far as everything we sought to do in rebuilding this program,” Sheriff said. “For us, we wanted to recruit really well for this year, and we’ve got a lot of young guys coming in who we’re really excited about. Beyond that, we needed to lay the foundation, lay who we want to be moving forward and what our road map is to being successful here within this program. And I think we’ve done that.”