The El Dorado Broncos held up their trophy and posed for pictures. Team owner J.D. Schneider offered handshakes all around, no doubt thinking about how many road trips and meals he can fund with the $5,000 prize.
It looked like a championship celebration, missing only the dogpile on the mound. Not quite.
The Broncos survived the first week of the NBC World Series and now they can start thinking about winning the real championship. El Dorado advanced into Championship Week by defeating the San Diego Force 6-2 on Wednesday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. As the test case for the tournament’s new format, which sends two teams from the opening week into the final round against 14 higher-seeded qualifiers, the Broncos are quite happy to be on a four-game roll.
“We came out and did a lot better than a lot of us thought we would,” center fielder Tyler Ware said. “Now that we’ve got our approaches down and everybody is playing the game very good, we need to keep it going.”
San Diego plays Thursday night in an elimination game with a chance to join the Broncos in the championship bracket.
In its 79th season, the NBC changed its format to reduce travel costs, reward the top teams and add meaning to the first week. A team that goes 4-0 in the previous 78 seasons is a title contender. The Broncos are starting over and will continue a busy schedule when it plays Nevada (Mo.) on Friday. The downside of the format is that the first-week winners are forced to play a lot of baseball. Broncos coach Chad Gerwick sees that as a positive, now that his team is riding a wave of good pitching and timely hitting. The Broncos finished third in the Jayhawk League, a half-game behind Wellington, one spot out of automatically qualifying for Championship Week.
“I’m perfectly fine with having to do this and play these four games and not taking a week off,” he said. “We got some confidence and we played real well these four games.”
Pitching carried the Broncos on Wednesday, just as it did most of the season. Four pitchers held the Force to eight singles. After starter Chance Cotton helped build a 4-2 lead, three relievers shut out the Force over the final 4 1/3 innings. In four games, the Broncos compiled a 1.36 ERA with two shutouts. They played errorless baseball in three of the games.
“Our coach preaches small ball and keep them from scoring,” Cotton said. “So far we’ve done that. I was able to throw my curveball well, but I didn’t have much else. I was just trying to keep us in the ball game early.”
The Broncos helped Cotton with two runs in the first and second innings. Clayton Taylor and Wade Stramp drove in runs in the first inning. In the second, Christian Cox singled in a run and Johnny Coen scored on a fielder’s choice by Thomas Clay. The Broncos diagnosed Force starter Corbin Burnes as a strike-thrower and went to the plate swinging early in the count. They battered him for seven hits in the first two innings and he didn’t come out for the third.
“Our team is kind of score-first-and-we-win team,” Ware said. “Everybody’s aggressive approaches really helped.”
The Broncos took a 4-2 lead into the sixth and put their first two runners on. Then they squandered that opportunity with poor execution. Jason McMurray bunted foul with two strikes. Mike Mucha failed to get a bunt down twice then flew out. Coen bounced into a fielder’s choice that ended the threat.
No matter. The Broncos turned a hit batsman into a run in the eighth and Taylor doubled in Ware, helped by an ill-timed dive by the left fielder, in the ninth. Meanwhile, the bullpen kept the Force from rallying. Alex Posey stranded runners at second and third in the eighth. Closer Derek Miller struck out two and got a groundball to end the game with two runners on.
The Broncos get one day off before returning to Lawrence-Dumont, the ballpark where it won five NBC titles, most recently in 2009. Gerwick likes the depth of his pitching staff and the Broncos lead the tournament in momentum, for what that’s worth.
“We’re going to enjoy it and relax (Thursday),” Gerwick said. “We’ll swing it early Friday and be ready to go.”