The Bend Elks lead the WCL’s South Division by 9 1/2 games, a tribute to their consistent results. But when it comes to their lineup, it is never the same thing twice
By Grant Lucas
The Bend Elks coaches’ office is littered with research. Past lineups, pitch charts and hit charts blanket the office floor at Vince Genna Stadium, intel that provides head coach Trey Watt and his staff with an offensive force that West Coast League opponents have struggled to stymie.
“Any way that we can look at gaining an advantage or what’s going to be a good matchup,” the first-year Elks coach says, “we definitely pay attention to that.”
That homework has played a role in developing one of the more potent offenses in WCL history, one that is on pace to obliterate league records. In return, with a league-best 23-5 record, Bend has drawn the attention of the rest of the WCL, which still cannot seem to accurately gauge the Elks’ attack.
Through Sunday’s games, Bend was batting .336 as a team with 240 runs and 99 extra-base hits, including 25 home runs — all league-best marks and all accomplished by 26 different lineups. That diversity, Watt assures, is exactly the Elks’ intention.
There are regulars such as Christian Cavaness, who through Sunday had started 23 games for the Elks and led off each time out, and there are others like Jarod Gonzales, who through Sunday had made 16 starts for Bend and batted from seven different spots in the lineup. In all, going into this week 20 players had started at least one game for Bend so far this summer, and 12 had hit from three or more different positions in the batting order, including eight of the 11 Elks who have started at least 10 games.
“There’s really no consistency,” says Cavaness, “except for the fact that we’re all hitting well.”
Yet as sporadic as the lineup has been to this point, there is no denying its impact — and there is no ignoring the arsenal boasted by the Elks. Here in the coaches’ office at Genna Stadium, where Watt and his assistants meet after each home game to discuss the lineup for the next day’s matchup, the blanketed floor of lineup cards, only two of them identical, hint at the depth with which few teams in the WCL can compare.
“Just figuring out different ways to get bats into the lineup because we have such an athletic group,” Watt says. “We’re keeping track of guys running bases and their times down the (base) line, and it seems like we have eight guys who are just flying down the line, which makes it even easier. It shows how athletic we are and that we can play these guys all over the place. When we saw that (when the Elks first arrived) that first week of June, we talked about how every night we need to come up with a different lineup for guys to really spread them out.”
It is a strategy West Tunnell is a bit familiar with, one that his Baylor coaches used in order to find the most optimal spot for each hitter in the lineup. But for other Bend players, arriving to the ballpark each day with uncertainty about the starting lineup is unprecedented.
With each team Cavaness has played on in his career, for example, there has been an understanding among coaches and players as to who would bat where in the lineup and play where in the field. While a core group of players has emerged as a pattern among recent Bend lineups — Cavaness, Tunnell, Tyler Davis and Cadyn Grenier have been in the same lineup in 16 of the Elks’ last 22 games — the day-to-day changes are a first for Cavaness. And, the Lindenwood University-Belleville (Illinois) outfielder emphasizes, that is just fine.
“Guys are getting enough rest, guys aren’t getting overpushed or anything,” he says. “I think it really does help us a lot that we have so many guys that can step in there. … Everybody’s ready to step into whatever position they need whenever they’re called upon.”
Each game’s lineup is out of the control of players, Tunnell says. “We see it and we go play. That’s it.” Besides, he continues, the way the Elks are producing offensively thus far, starters are typically getting at least four at-bats per game.
“Whether you hit one, two, three, four all the way through nine, you’re going to be in a good spot,” Tunnell says, “because you’ve got guys in front of you and guys behind you that can hit just as well.”
Watt is sure this approach is not “anything too different or crazy.” Rather, it is a byproduct of a deep roster put together by Elks general manager Casey Powell combined with these players’ college coaches, who, Watt says, did not request for their players a certain minimum amount of playing time. There is no quota for Bend coaches to fill. The are no restrictions on their flexibility. The command, Watt says, was simple: “Put them out there and play, man.”
That makes the Elks coaches’ job simple: win.
“We’re always going to want to win,” Watt says. “If we’re using guys off the bench, it’s because we think they can help us win. We definitely want to give guys good opportunities. But at the same time, there’s multiple guys who deserve opportunities. What’s that guy done in (batting practice)? What’s that guy done in early work? What has he done to really show that he’s earned that spot where we’re putting him at in the lineup? We’re going at it to win a ballgame every night.”
The downside of having such a deep roster, however, is the quality of players not starting every night for the Elks. Though, Cavaness argues, that may not be such a bad thing, as it has driven each player to further sharpen his skill set.
“I’ve never played on a team that is this talented up and down the lineup,” Cavaness says. “Here in Bend, everybody is just as good as the next person. Everybody would be a starter if they played on any other team. It’s a good thing to have that kind of depth and that kind of skill at every position. It helps our lineup, it helps everybody, and it’s just going to get better.”
Through Sunday’s games, 25 West Coast League players (those averaging 2.7 at-bats per game) were hitting better than .300 this summer. Six of those 28 were Elks — the most of any team. With a different lineup each day, with the bottom of its batting order terrorizing pitchers as much as the top, Bend has proven to be difficult for opponents to stop. And that makes the Elks dangerous as the season moves forward.
“If I was an opposing pitcher playing against the team that we have right now, I’d definitely be a little wary going into the game,” says Tunnell. “Anybody in the lineup can hit anywhere. Pitchers, they get to that third inning when they’re facing the 7-8-9 guys (in the batting order … they can kind of ease up and get into a groove. With our team, you have to be sharp every single inning. Otherwise, you’re going to get punished. If you’re not sharp from the get-go, the top of the lineup will get you. If you’re not sharp at the end, the bottom of the lineup will get you. That’s how good our team is right now.”