|Posted April 8, 2008|
T-Wolves' baseball team overcomes adversity, slide
Seniors Joe Proto, Nick Balentine help provide impetus for stunning turnaround.
By JEFF LETOFSKY, THE PUEBLO
Getting through adversity is what athletics is all about.
Just ask Joe Proto and Nick Balentine.
The two Colorado State University-Pueblo senior baseball players have helped breathe life into a program that had hit rock bottom. A program that is used to winning, used to being among the best in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, if not the region.
It's a story of perseverance, survival.
Entering last week, the Pack had lost a school-record 11 consecutive games and faced a mighty task in traveling to Las Cruces, N.M., to face NCAA Division I New Mexico State, one of the top hitting teams in the country, in a two-game series.
In the opener on April 1, CSU-Pueblo gave the Aggies a run before falling 17-15. The losing streak had reached an abysmal 12 games.
But Wednesday's finale was something special.
Playing before a regional cable television audience, the ThunderWolves knocked off New Mexico State 7-6, pulling off one of the biggest wins in school history.
And that win catapulted CSU-Pueblo to a five-game winning streak after it swept Colorado Christian in a four-game Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference series this past weekend at home.
Ironically, the turnaround began in the Land of Enchantment.
Pack head coach Stan Sanchez handed Proto the ball in the second game against the Aggies. What transpired after that was truly special.
Proto, a right-handed pitcher, entered the start with an 0-4 record and a 10.27 ERA. He had been banged around for most of the season.
But he found his groove against the Aggies, throwing shutout ball for four innings while his teammates erected a 7-0 lead. New Mexico State touched Proto for three runs in the fifth inning and added two more in the seventh to chop the deficit to 7-5.
Mario Mattivi relieved Proto and gave up a run in the eighth before Chris Garcia entered for Mattivi and held the Aggies at bay for 1 innings to pick up the save and preseve the victory.
CSU-Pueblo had snapped the long losing streak and had beaten a Division I team in the process.
"My two-seam fastball was my money pitch," Proto recalled. "I was getting ground balls. I just went out there and pounded the strike zone.
"It was one of those days we came to play, everybody did. Actually, it was unbelievable. It was an awesome experience."
"What our kids accomplished down there (Las Cruces) in two games has given life to our season," Sanchez said. "It's been a tremendous fight through the adversity. Right now I'm so proud of our kids with what they've done.
"It has rejuvenated our spirit."
While Proto's performance paved the way for a turnaround, just Balentine's presence and return to the lineup has been inspiring.
Balentine started the season as the team's No. 2 pitcher. But three starts into the season, he heard his arm pop. Sanchez thought his senior right-hander was through, a potential Tommy John surgery candidate.
"I had never had arm problems before," said Balentine, who played middle infield in junior college before transferring to CSU-Pueblo. "I came (to CSU-Pueblo) as a pitcher.
"I threw an 0-2 slider against Highlands and heard my elbow pop. The next pitch I threw another slider and it popped again and started burning."
Balentine had an MRI done and said his ulna collateral ligament had been inflamed. There was no tear, which was good news.
"After I hurt my arm, I was depressed the first two weeks and didn't know if I'd play baseball again," Balentine said. "Then the MRI revealed there was no tear. I'm just glad to be playing again. I don't take anything for granted any more because you never know what can happen."
During Balentine's odyssey, the team also lost starting shortstop Mark Sayas to a season-ending arm injury.
Replacing Sayas was difficult. A couple different players didn't pan out and when Balentine recovered from his rehabilitation stint, he was asked by Coach Sanchez to try his hand at shortstop.
The rest is history.
Balentine has become the Pack's everyday shortstop and is even contributing at the plate where he's hitting a healthy .406 (13-for-32), hitting in the No. 8 hole.
Since Balentine moved into the infield, the Pack's defense has solidified. In fact, during the recent five-game streak, the T-Wolves have turned 11 doubleplays, including eight in the series against Colorado Christian.
"Winning is fun, losing isn't," Balentine said. "That losing streak was the hardest time I've every had in baseball. It was like nothing was going our way."
Now it is and a season that was dwindling is alive.