Tony Cirelli, head coach of Mesa Community College's baseball team, observes the field during a home game in 2017. (Photo courtesy of the MCC athletics department.)

Thunderbird baseball team looks to make playoff push

The Thunderbird baseball team sits at 23-15 overall and 11-13 in conference play on the year with 17 games left to go in the regular season as Mesa Community College holds the two seed in the conference playoff picture.

MCC broke a recent six game losing streak with an impressive 5-3 win over Division I  conference opponent Central Arizona College on March 30.

The team’s season has been a series of inconsistent stretches, as the Thunderbirds have separate winning streaks of nine, six and three games. MCC also has a six game losing streak, as well as four separate back to back loses. 

The six game losing streak all came against DI opponents in what could prove to be the toughest stretch of the season for MCC.

“We haven’t scored a bunch. Our pitching has been our strength, and we just have had a couple close games lately that we haven’t won. Before that we were 10-0 in games decided by one or two runs,” said head coach Tony Cirelli.

MCC had been able to win all of their close games heading into the DI stretch of their season. With the victory over Central Arizona, the Thunderbirds sit at 11-2 in such games. 

A common message Cirelli sends to his players is to compete against the game, not the name on the opponent’s jerseys.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Mariano Rivera on the mound or ‘Billy Joe Junior College’, you still have to hunt a good pitch and get on time, [it] doesn’t matter if it’s the first game, if it’s a non-conference game, if it’s a playoff game or the world series,” said Cirelli.

Pitching and defense are two pillars which the team is grounded in, according to Cirelli.

MCC’s pitching staff is led by sophomore right hander Eric Nachtsheim who sits at a 2.98 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, leading the team in innings pitched on the season. Nachtsheim has pitched 51.1 innings on the season, the only player to play over 40 innings, according to the athletic department’s website.

Second on the team is freshman Ty Johnson at 36.1, while William Fife sits in third with 34.2 innings pitched, according to the athletic department’s website. 

MCC sits at second in the conference in errors with 42 on the year, by far the best of the DII schools in the conference as Phoenix College sits in second place with 53, according to the conference stats website.

MCC is also the only school in the conference to not allow a passed ball, highlighting the two strengths of the team.

“To see that we’re pitching and we’re keeping guys off base is the WHIP, that’s the low WHIP, and playing the game right. We [sacrifice] guys over, we run the bases, even the strikeouts, almost every year we’re right there near the top of least amount of strikeouts,” said Cirelli.

The team’s offense is designed to get batters on base and advance them through sacrifice hitting and stealing bases, according to Cirelli.

MCC sits second in the conference in fewest total strikeouts on the season and fourth in stolen bases.

One reason for the style of play is to be able to compete late in games when single runs can be the difference between a win or loss.

“That’s kind of our thing that we do all the time. Through the fall, when we scrimmaged, we played the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. Now you’re talking about bring the infield in, bunt a guy over, play all the things that happen late in the game,” said Cirelli.

The repetitions gained in the high leverage situations allows the team to feel comfortable in crunch time, when most teams begin to implement the style of play MCC operates with all game, according to Cirelli.

Cirelli has invested more time working with the pitching staff this season after an unsatisfactory performance from the group last year.

A point of emphasis from Cirelli has been to focus on pitching down, making it much harder for batters to make good contact. 

“The string is two feet, two inches. Under there is the lowest batting average in Major League Baseball. Our real emphasis has been down. If you throw the ball down, it’s hard to hit,” said Cirelli.

Pitches between two feet, two inches and two feet, eight inches off the ground see an increased hit rate by batters according to Cirelli, helping emphasize Cirelli’s point of pitching lower.

The next game for the baseball team will be at home in a double header against DI opponent Cochise College on Wednesday, April 3 at 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.

  • Adam Terro

    Adam Terro is the Sports Editor for the Mesa Legend. He joined the staff in January 2021 and first published with the Legend in fall 2020. His passion is for sports, specifically football and basketball.

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