If ever a baseball season could be the tale of two halves, it may just be this year’s Holly Springs Salamanders.
The second-year Coastal Plain League franchise has made a considerable turnaround after a rocky start to the season and is primed to make a playoff push during the final month of the regular season. After losing 12 of their first 16 games, the Salamanders have won 10 of their last 15 to enter the All-Star break with a 14-17 record and just 1.5 games out of playoff contention.
“I think (the team) sees the potential that we have,” manager Andrew Ciencin said. “We’re making less mistakes and that’s kind of what beat us in the first half (of the season). But it’s all coming together. It just took longer than I expected.”
It may have taken longer than expected to come to fruition, but the timing of Holly Springs’ surge couldn’t be better. Holly Springs leads the second-half standings at 4-1 and of the Salamanders’ remaining 22 games, 12 will be played at home and just 11 of those will be against a team with a winning record as of the All-Star break.
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“I kind of want to put (the first half of the season) behind us but learn from it obviously and I think that’s what they’ve done,” Ciencin said.
Finding their identity
Holly Springs ranks in the top five in the 16-team league in three key – although not always noticeable – categories: fielding percentage, sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies while also grounding into the fewest number of double plays.
Though not flashy, Ciencin knows these are the types of categories that often add up to winning baseball.
“Towards the middle and end of the first half I sat them down offensively and just said that we’re not a doubles and home run team and I think that’s where they started to figure things out,” Ciencin said. “Get a guy on and bunt him over or hit and run. Just something to get the guy to the next base and have the next guy come up and just do his job. It’s all about just keeping it simple and having every guy do their job offensively and it’s worked out.”
Starting with a bang
A big reason for the turnaround has been the Salamanders’ starting pitching. During the 4-12 start to the season, Holly Springs starters combined for an ERA of 6.39. During the 10-5 sprint, that ERA has dipped to 3.97.
“Just from the first couple games of the second half you could see starting pitchers coming out ready to dominate from the get-go and that’s something we didn’t do in the first half,” Ciencin said.
At the plate, outfielder Dillon Stewart (UNC-Greensboro) has earned the attention of the rest of the league. Stewart, a Triton High alumnus, was the lone player from the Salamanders elected to the All-Star game and entered the break hitting .348 with six home runs and 24 runs batted in while going a perfect 12-for-12 in stolen base attempts.
Stewart leads the entire CPL in slugging percentage by a wide margin. His .652 percentage is well ahead of the .579 held by Lexington County’s Brett Auckland. Stewart’s home run total is good for a tie for fifth and his 60 total bases is tied for sixth.
“He’s been an offensive sparkplug. He has that power that kind of threatens the other team. He’s a guy that’s going to drive in runs when needed and he comes up with big hits. He has a good approach at the plate, he knows what he’s looking for and he’s stuck with it. Obviously he’s done pretty well for us,” Ciencin said.
Holly Springs has had plenty of additional contributions as well. Outfielder Devin Ruiz (UNC-Greensboro) leads the team with both a .349 batting average and .423 on-base percentage and has yet to make an error in 24 games. Drew Butler (Campbell) is batting .311 with a team-high 25 runs.
From the mound, J.T. Rogoszewski (UNC) has gone 4-1 with a 3.41 ERA while closer Chad Sykes (UNC-Greensboro), a Voyager Academy alumnus, has delivered a 1.17 ERA and .140 opponent batting average in 10 appearances.
Good luck charm
There’s one Salamander that deserves plenty of credit for the team’s turnaround: Xander, who is an actual Salamander. During a recent road trip, the team bus happened to make a pit stop in front of a pet store and a handful of players decided the time was right to make an addition to the roster.
“I got back on the bus and there was a Salamander on the front seat,” Ciencin said with a laugh. “These guys need to have fun. It’s such a grind. Winning is fun obviously but it’s good to see.”