CLEVELAND, Tenn. - The Lee University baseball team keeps going back for more.
For the second time in three years last season, the Flames finished second in the NAIA World Series at Lewiston, Idaho. They were third the year in between.
They're making the program's fifth Lewiston trip in five years and sixth in seven seasons this week, and they're interested in nothing but first place. They made sure of a return by going 3-0 with a 32-4 scoring differential in the opening series Lee hosted.
"Honestly, last year I just wanted to get back to the World Series. This year I've made it a mission not only to get back to the championship game but to win it," senior right fielder Michael Brown, a former Baylor School standout, said Friday. "I'm not playing for second."
Jay Bolen, a senior pitcher completing a long career at Cleveland schools, said that "last year when we didn't win, we started working on this year with the mindset to get back. Now that that time is here, that just makes me want it all the more."
Bolen is 8-0 -and 15-1 in two seasons - as part of a strong staff headed by Shay Crawford (10-2) and Maxx Catapano (8-3), senior transfers from UAB and Bellevue. Those two have earned run averages of 1.26 and 2.01.
Junior transfer Curtis Camilli, the third starter in the NAIA opening series, is 7-2 with a 2.85 ERA. Including Kris Hall with eight saves and Joe Fabre with three, seven Lee pitchers have ERAs below 3.
Brown leads a strong lineup with a .376 batting average and team highs of 76 hits, 34 walks and 56 runs. His 52 RBIs are second to junior first baseman Roberto Reyes' 57, and Brown has stolen 12 bases in 14 attempts. He was the player of the year in the Eastern Division of the Southern States Athletic Conference,
All 11 Flames with at least 100 at-bats - seven of whom are first-year transfers - are hitting at least .274, and eight of those are at .305 or better. Junior third baseman Preston Scoggins, like Bolen a former Cleveland High star, is second to Brown with a .366 average - one point better than junior outfielder Chris Grayson.
Scoggins replaced 2010 senior stat machine Tanner Moore.
"Preston Scoggins - what a story," Flames coach Mark Brew said. "He got 20 at-bats last year, but he got a chance at third base and became one of the top hitters on our team."
Brown called the former high school quarterback a "small-ball specialist. I swear, half his hits are bunts. He's been putting on a showcase."
And "small ball" as a priority often has led to big innings, Brown pointed out.
The Flames are 47-12, seeded fifth in the Avista-NAIA World Series and open Friday at 3 p.m. EDT against LSU-Shreveport (45-13). The loser of that game plays the next morning, but the winner gets two days off. As Brew has told his team, only six teams will be left by then.
"Certainly we don't want to jump ahead of ourselves," Brew said. "But we've stayed in the moment and focused on the task at hand pretty well."
He acknowledged, however, that "from the coaching staff on down," the Flames didn't "handle it very well" when they ascended to No. 1 in the NAIA poll late in the season, but a jarring two-and-out performance as top seeds in the SSAC tournament got them back on track.
"I'd say so, the way we hit the ball when we came back for the [NAIA] opening series," Scoggins said, suggesting that the quick exit from the league tourney gave them time not only for reflection but for rest and healing.
Pitching is the strength of the team, he and Brown said, yet the Flames gave up 18 walks in the two SSAC tourney games. The pitchers have got some extra rest the last two weeks, and the return from injury of catcher Travis Anderson - a senior transfer from Oregon State - has helped them as well.
"I think the guys we have who came from somewhere else did not necessarily go deep in the postseason before," Bolen said, "and they've got some drive to get there. And I know those of us who've been [to Lewiston] before want to take that last step."
Said Scoggins: "We've just to stay focused on what we've got to do."