It’s kind of like the old Almond Joy and Mounds classic chocolate bar commercials from the 1980s.
You remember the catchphrase — “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”
Consider the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs baseball team an amalgam of that catchphrase, complete with a few straightforward, blue-collar workers along with a few loose “nuts” that have helped keep the Diamond ‘Dogs loose and ready all season long.
That certainly showed in their 18-2 demolition of Rider in opening-round play of the NCAA Ruston Baseball Regional Friday night at “The Love Shack.”
Starting pitcher Jonathan Fincher provided the “Mounds” for a packed house of Tech fans as he allowed only six hits and one walk with four strikeouts in eight innings of work on the mound.
“His stuff wasn’t great,” said Tech head coach Lane Burroughs about Fincher’s performance. “He wasn’t throwing very hard. But he threw strikes, so he kept his defense engaged. I thought we made some really good defensive plays. Fincher got a lot of pop-ups tonight. He’s a spin rate guy so it’s hard to get a gauge on him. It might not be that hard of a velocity but guys have trouble getting it there because it’s on them. I think you saw that tonight.”
Then there are players like senior outfielder Phillip Matulia, who all season long has ignited the Bulldogs and their fans with his dancing to the Endor song “Pump It Up.”
But on Friday night it was senior third baseman Hunter Wells serving as the “Almond Joy” kind of nut for the Bulldogs against the Broncos. Wells not only became the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in career hits (272) against Rider. He was a one-man wrecking crew at the plate, going 4-of-5 with the bat while recording nine RBIs and setting another program record with that mark by hitting two home runs and two doubles.
And Wells did so in a wonderfully different fashion more reminiscent of the 1980s heyday of the comedian known as Gallagher (whose first name is Leo, for the record) and his “Sledge-0-Matic” skits in which he used an oversized mallet to smash watermelons into bits and pieces.
“Obviously he was locked and dialed in, and when he is you better watch out because I’ve said it over and over — he has the ability to put the barrel on the baseball as good as anybody that I’ve ever coached,” said Tech head coach Lane Burroughs of Wells’ performance Friday night. “And that’s not something you can really teach. He has his own way of doing things. It’s unconventional sometimes and you kind of laugh at it. But I think the results are there. When guys like that are having success you just kind of get out of their way and let them do their thing. I couldn’t be more proud of Hunter and the history he made tonight.”
Wells said he doesn’t do much thinking when he walks out to the plate for the Bulldogs.
“I’m not thinking about anything at the plate,” Wells said. “When I start thinking, that’s when I start struggling. So I go up to the plate absolutely not thinking and just trying to crush any pitch that comes over the plate in the box. That’s when I’m at my best. That’s just the way I try to stay and I don’t try to think too much.”
So instead of thinking, Wells simply swings the bat like a sledgehammer aiming at — you guessed it — watermelons.
“I was seeing fastballs to be honest,” Wells said of his night at the plate against Rider. “I hit the fastball and they just happened to be throwing it. Some nights the ball looks like a watermelon, some nights it looks like a ping pong ball. Tonight I guess it was a watermelon, no doubt.”
Wells was so crazily good enough against the Broncos that he did something he’d never done before — switch hit to blast home runs from both the left and the right for the Bulldogs.
“That is a first time for me,” Wells said. “I have never done that. I’ve always wanted to do it but had never done it. It’s just a fantastic feeling. I can’t even describe it.”
Wells admitted shortly after the game ended that his performance still hadn’t “hit” him.
“It definitely has not hit me,” Wells said of the enormity of the night he had. “It’ll probably hit me when I’m laying in bed tonight. When I hit the walk-off (home run to beat Southern Miss) in the (Conference USA) tournament, I was sweating in bed still later that night. It hasn’t really hit me. I’m kind of speechless to be honest. I’m going to try and enjoy it tonight and come back ready (Saturday) against NC State.”
What had already “hit” Wells shortly after the win over Rider were thoughts about how far his team has come in a little over two years in the wake of the April 25, 2019, tornado that destroyed the original JC Love Baseball Stadium.
“When you look at where we are tonight from two years ago when the stadium got torn down and we were playing at a high school field over at Ruston High, it is just a dramatic change,” Wells said. “I’m speechless. Where Tech has come — we’re trying to change this program and make it a Top 25 (team) every year. I think we’re doing that and we’re on the right track. I think for years to come this place is going to be packed and rowdy.”
And Wells admits to being amazed at the support the Diamond ‘Dogs have received from their fan base as well as Ruston and Lincoln Parish as a whole.
“There’s always the thought that we want to help everybody, but at the end of the day, we’re just playing ball,” Wells said. “We’re just having a great time. Just being part of this community and driving around town and seeing our banners up, that’s awesome. The town has completely changed since I’ve gotten here. Everybody has bought in and it’s just fantastic to see what this town is becoming around Tech baseball.”
It’s kind of crazy — good and wonderfully crazy — the way things have worked out for LA Tech’s baseball team over the past few seasons, with the tornado, then COVID-19, and finally an NCAA Regional in Ruston.
And apparently the Bulldogs still had “Lady Luck” dancing to “Pump It Up” alongside them.
“We won the (coin) flip, so we’re the home team again,” Burroughs said of Saturday’s winner bracket game against North Carolina State, the eventual Ruston Regional champion. “We have been (the home team) now for a long time in these tournaments, and I know that’s a good thing. Our guys will come ready to play and ready to go and I know our crowd will be rowdy and having fun like they did tonight.”