In the final analysis of the 2013 season, Northwest Missouri State's baseball team just needed to start playing up to its potential a little bit sooner.
After starting 9-22 amid a wave of weather-related postponements, Northwest caught fire around the beginning of April and won 13 of its last 18 games.
Despite the strong finish, the Bearcats never moved above 12th place in the MIAA and missed out on the eight-team conference tournament by 2.5 games. Northwest's final record of 22-27 was 4.5 games better than the year before, but still left the Bearcats below .500 for the fifth consecutive year.
It was also the third straight year the Bearcats failed to reach the MIAA Tournament.
The Bearcats managed to stay alive for one of the eight tournament spots until losing two of three games to Pittsburg State on the final weekend of the season.
"I think number one the weather was just brutal on us early and we couldn't get in any kind of groove," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Darin Loe. "We couldn't get any rhythm. You saw what happened when we were able to get outside and practice a little bit. We played some of the best baseball we've ever played here over the last 20 games. Now we regroup and get ready for next year."
The awful late-winter weather not only contributed to Northwest's slow start, but created an unbalanced schedule throughout the league.
Each of the conference's 15 teams were supposed to play 46 league games. Nobody actually did.
The Bearcats played the second-most with 43, but that required them to give up home dates with Lindenwood, Nebraska-Kearney and Central Oklahoma early in the season. Northwest went a combined 1-7 in those games played at neutral-sites or at the opposing team's field.
"It's unfortunate because I don't think you get a true indication of who is deserving when you have weather like this," said Loe. "We found a way to play all those games on the road in cold temperatures and other schools either didn't or were not able to play those games."
Facing every MIAA opponent except Central Missouri, Northwest struggled to win games against teams in the top half of the league, while dominating those at the bottom.
The Bearcats did not win a single series from any of the eight teams that made the MIAA Tournament, only splitting with eight-seeded Fort Hays State. They went a combined 10-23 against the 11 teams ahead of them in the conference and 9-1 against the three teams below.
"That's what you got to do to get up in that group of teams," said Loe. "Almost all of those games were in the first 30. We just weren't playing real well. That's what was unfortunate. Certainly, I think if the schedule is flip-flopped and we would've been able to play some of those guys later, it would've been a different story."
Page 2 of 3 - Northwest was in position to win two games from fifth-place Emporia State, but gave up a ninth-inning lead in the second game and eventually lost the series.
The Bearcats also also blew a 3-0 lead in the last inning to Missouri Southern and a two-run lead to Southwest Baptist.
In all, the Bearcats were 5-9 in games decided by two runs or less, with three of their wins coming in the final two weeks. They won only once in 23 tries when trailing after the sixth, while losing four games when leading at that same point.
"You can go back through the schedule and say we should've had that one, we should've had this one," said Loe. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen. Our mindset has to be just being positive and looking forward instead of worrying about any losses or any chances missed early on."
Unwilling to let the demoralizing losses break them, Northwest suddenly became the hottest team in the league after losing two of three to ESU on the second weekend in April.
The Bearcats won their next seven games, sweeping doubleheaders from Nebraska-Kearney and Fort Hays State—two teams they were swept by earlier in the year.
During the win streak—tied for Northwest's longest since 2006—the Bearcats allowed three runs or fewer in every game and averaged six.
"In the last 20 games, we really concentrated on playing loose and looking forward," said Loe. "I thought we were a much more relaxed team. We weren't so worried about wins and losses, batting averages and ERA's."
Northwest finished plus-16 in run differential, a stat that was aided by a 31-7 win over Southwest Baptist and a 17-6 win over Pittsburg State in the regular season finale.
Once down in the .250 range, the Bearcats hit a respectable .295 as a team—10th-best in the MIAA.
This was still 21 percentage points below what the Bearcats hit in 2012.
Returning all-conference performers Ryan Abernathy, Eric McGlauflin and Eric Swain all had lower averages than the year prior, but tore the cover off the ball late in the year.
Senior Tyler Durant, who missed time with a hamstring injury, led Northwest with a .375 average. Three others hit .300 or better and three more were in the .290 range. Swain's seven homers and 38 RBI's were both team-high's.
Northwest's pitching staff posted a 5.99 ERA, ranking eighth in the MIAA.
Junior lefty Ryker Fox emerged as the staff ace after a rough first month, winning five consecutive starts to finish 5-5 with a 3.98 ERA. Freshman Rob Henrichs also came on late in the year, going 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA in five starts.
Page 3 of 3 - The team's closer, senior Nathaniel Horton, finished off four games and struck out 36 batters in 23 innings.
Defensively, the Bearcats made significant strides, finishing third in the MIAA with a .967 fielding percentage.
Only Central Missouri and Emporia State were more sure-handed.
"I thought that was tremendous," said Loe. "We seldom practiced on our baseball field and to go out and be the third-best fielding team in the conference is a credit to our kids. We played great defense all year. The bats came a little late and hopefully next year we'll start being a little more competitive early on."
Northwest loses seven seniors, four of which—Swain (3B), Durant (RF), Cam Bedard (2B) and J.J. Baccari (C)—were starting position players. The Bearcats return their other five starters, several contributing back-ups, four-fifth's of their starting rotation and every member of the bullpen except Horton and Jacob Raffaele.
Loe expects every open position to be filled internally.
"I really like the group of guys we got coming back," said Loe. "We've got a core group of guys that play the game the right way and can follow the senior's lead. I certainly feel like we're moving in the right direction. We're going to continue to do that and build this program up to where it needs to be."