The tide may be starting to turn in favor of Union baseball. To say that the Bulldogs have struggled since joining NCAA Division II and the Gulf South Conference (GSC) would be an understatement. In the four seasons they’ve played since joining DII, the Bulldogs compiled a 53-136 record with a 25-93 record in the GSC. Despite those numbers, Union has shown signs of improvement in the last two seasons. The Bulldogs finished 20-28 last season and are now off to an outstanding 15-1 start to the 2017 campaign, which is the best start of a season for Union going back through the 1996 season.
Union only graduated one senior last year and returns every starter from last year’s team, which plays a role in their early success so far.
“The consistency of a lineup helps,” head coach Lee Driggers said.
This lineup has been able to win 15 of their first 16 games mainly due to their ability to hit the ball. As a team, Union ranks first in the Gulf South Conference in batting average (.329), runs scored (139), hits (182), home runs (21), doubles (43), and extra-base hits (69), while drawing the second-most walks (75) and ranking fifth in fewest strikeouts (92). Union also has four players hitting over .350 to start the season (minimum 50 at-bats).
While hitting has been a huge plus for the Bulldogs this year, Driggers also attributed the team’s success to pitching. The old adage is ‘pitching wins championships’ and depth has been a key for the Bulldogs this year.
“This year, we’ve been able to use multiple guys and not have our starters go longer than we need them to and so far, it’s resulted in positive things for us,” Driggers said. That depth has led Union to a team earned run average of 3.83, which is third in the GSC.
One of the big contributors to the Bulldogs this year is Nolen Milton. The sophomore is currently on a 15-game hitting streak and leads the team with a .420 batting average. Milton struggled at the plate last year, which he says was a result of freshman mistakes.
“My freshman year I was young and stupid,” Milton said. “I thought I could just get away with what I did in high school, but I was wrong. I struggled all year when it came to hitting. So once the season ended, I decided to go home and work on my game instead of playing summer ball. I trained almost every day and developed a new swing.”
“[Milton] has improved by having better pitch selection and just the maturation of a year; he’s stronger this year, he’s bigger this year than he was last year. He has a really high ceiling and if he keeps up the work, hopefully, he’s going to be a really good player in the Gulf South Conference,” Driggers said.
The new swing and better plate discipline have paid off, as Milton leads the GSC in extra-base hits (17), doubles (9), home runs (6), and runs batted in (26). He was named the GSC and the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Player of the Week for the week of February 13. In that week, Milton broke the school record for most RBIs in a game with nine in a four-hit, two home run performance against Arkansas-Monticello.
“I have to thank God for my success so far this season,” Milton said. “I expected to play well this year, but I didn’t have any idea I would start out the way I have. No one can do it on their own, it takes a full team to be great. If one person goes down, we have someone to pick them up.”
Union will look to continue their hot streak and extend their nine-game winning streak tomorrow and Sunday as they travel to Cleveland, Mississippi to face conference foe Delta State in a battle of two top-ten National College Baseball Writers Association South Region teams. The Bulldogs and the Statesmen will play a doubleheader Saturday afternoon at noon and 2:00 pm, with the series finale Sunday at 2:00 pm.