By Matt Schwab
Small College Sports Columnist, Bay Area News Group
Cal State East Bay baseball coach Bob Ralston knows how tough baseball is, so he keeps things positive while emphasizing fundamentals.
"I'm a firm believer in being a good teacher," Ralston said. "We try to teach the kids how to play the game the right way. We try to give them positive feedback."
The Ralston Way has the program on the right path.
The Pioneers enter this week's pivotal home series against Cal State Dominguez Hills in the thick of the playoff race in the California Collegiate Athletic Association with 12 games remaining.
The top four teams qualify for the CCAA Baseball Championships May 9-12 in Stockton, and the Pioneers (24-14, 14-14) are in sixth place, two games behind fourth-place Sonoma State.
Not bad for a program that finished 18-32 overall in 2011, the year before Ralston took charge.
Players are aiming for big things while trying to perfect all the little things.
Sophomore pitcher Michael Pope (Las Lomas), who at 7-2 with a 3.79 ERA is three victories away from breaking the school record for wins, said the coaching staff holds players accountable in all phases.
"We practice the fundamentals of baseball," Pope said. "We don't go up there hacking. We're not looking for a three-run bomb. Every single batter in the lineup will do whatever the coach tells him, whether it's bunt, hit-and-run, steal. Everyone just works together."
The series against fifth-place Dominguez Hills (19-18, 15-13) begins at 3 p.m. Friday, with a doubleheader at 11 a.m. Saturday and the finale at 11 a.m. Sunday.
A season highlight for the Pioneers was a split of a four-game series with Chico State, ranked No. 3 in Division II.
Moreover, the roster has a distinct local vibe, even on a coaching staff that boasts former Giants and A's center fielder Darren Lewis, who starred at Moreau Catholic, Chabot and Cal.
"We've played very well all year, from day one," said Ralston, who guided Clayton Valley to seven Diablo Valley Athletic League titles and two North Coast Section crowns over 13 seasons.
"The team has been very consistent," he continued. "Our starting pitchers have given us an opportunity to win every game. Our defense has been very, very solid behind our pitching, so between those two aspects of our game, it's given us an opportunity to compete against everybody we've faced."
Pope is learning a lot from pitching coach Jon Norfolk, a former assistant at USF who also works with the catchers.
"Just trying to tilt the ball as much as possible," Pope said of his approach, "and be able to get on top and really make it difficult for hitters to adjust to how much the ball is going downhill on them, instead of seeing the ball on the same plane."
Impressive freshman first baseman David Elzig, a former Alameda star, has a .354 batting average and is among at least 16 Pioneers players with Bay Area ties.
The solid pitching staff also boasts former Ohlone College ace Matt Fontaine (2-1, 1.98), De La Salle graduate Nick Hudson (2-1, 2.78 ERA), a transfer from UC San Diego, and Ben O'Bryan (DVC).
Catcher David Castillo (Pinole, DVC) is hitting .337.
"We all know each other," Pope said of the local connections. "We've played each other. We have stories: 'I remember playing you in high school. Do you remember this guy?' and all that kind of stuff. I think that helps bring our team together."