Will Rogers has always had one overriding philosophy when it comes to summer baseball: Play hard, but stay loose.
For years Rogers has been running the program that five years ago became the Midwest Athletics, a summer team for college-level baseball players. His players have either just been through the intense grind of a college season or they’re preparing themselves for that experience.
When it’s summertime, Rogers wants the living to be easy.
“It’s my philosophy overall, but particularly in summer ball,” Rogers said. “It has to be a more relaxed atmosphere. But I also think going on in their college career and in life they’ll find if they can be loose and focused they’ll be more successful.”
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Rogers’ approach has been a winning one for the Belton-based Athletics. Last year, the A’s went 21-6 and were the regular-season champions of the eight-team Mid-Plains League. Many of the players from that squad are back this summer, and the team was off to a league-best 7-1 start through its first eight games.
Having some talent helps, of course. But Rogers also believes it helps to let that talent loosen up a bit. For some players, that takes some getting used to.
“The hardest thing I’ve found for young guys to learn is how to be focused and still be loose and have fun,” Rogers said. “Most college coaches, their job depends on (winning) so they’re firmer and drill sergeant-ish. And I’m just probably the polar opposite because I think guys play better if they’re loose and relaxed.”
Rogers said this year’s A’s are a good mix of veterans who know his approach and newcomers who are willing to learn. That veteran group includes catcher Michael Briggs, a Lee’s Summit native who played for O’Hara before going on to Missouri State; Tucker Perkins, an infielder from Belton now at Emporia State; Cole Dunham, an outfielder from Lee’s Summit West and Drury University; and Dalen Blair, a pitcher from Lee’s Summit High and Briar Cliff University in Iowa.
Blair, who just completed his first season at Briar Cliff, said he appreciates the opportunity to be competitive and still dial it back.
“The college coaches are up on you all the time – you’ve got to be intense almost 24/7,” Blair said. “And here, you can still be intense and everything but you’re also like laid back relaxed. It’s a lot more fun actually playing that way and it’s been proven sometimes that it works and you end up playing better.”
Briggs, who didn’t join the team until last week, has provided extra pop to what has been a potent offense. He had four home runs and 13 RBIs in his first six at-bats and was hitting .533 with a .632 on-base percentage over the first eight games. As a team, the A’s were batting .329 and averaging almost nine runs a game over that span.
“This is probably the most loaded offense we’ve had,” Rogers said. “The last time I looked we had 12 guys hitting over .300 and we have about four or five guys with an on-base percentage over .600 or .700, which is unheard of.”
Blair, who is off to a 2-0 start with a 1.20 ERA over 15 innings, leads a pitching staff that also includes DJ Elliot of Belton and Benedictine College, Dalton Spurgeon of Lee’s Summit and University of the Ozarks and newcomer Zach Pratt from Belton.
Pratt, who was the Suburban White Conference Player of the year last spring for the Pirates, has already learned to appreciate Rogers’ relaxed approach.
“After a hard season of just go go go, coming here and having a laid-back feel is just what some guys need,” Pratt said. “The big thing is have fun and try not to tense up during games.”
The A’s have struggled a little on the mound with a 4.07 team ERA over 62 innings with 28 earned runs and 36 walks to 46 strikeouts. But they did post shutouts in two of their last three games going into the start of the week, and Rogers expects those numbers to gradually get better.
“We have some new guys and in their first few outings I’m going to say were some nerves,” Rogers said. “But they’re good enough they’ll close that up and clean that up and our pitching will improve as we progress.”
Rogers said the pitching will need to progress for the A’s to have another winning season in the Mid-Plains League, a wood-bat circuit with teams in Missouri and Kansas. While they had the league’s best record last season, the A’s lost a three-game series against the Junction City (Kan.) Brigade in the Cowdin Cup playoff semifinals. The A’s will play their home games again this year at Belton High School.
“I have every confidence that we’re going to score runs,” Rogers said. “It’s just going to be pitching and defense. Defense will be OK. But baseball always boils down to pitching.”
That, and not getting too uptight on the field.
“Summer ball is a little bit different,” Blair said. “It doesn’t mean as much, but we’re here to get better for college. If you’re out here relaxed and you’re getting better, it just helps everybody out.”