Taft, California —— For the first time in more than 25 years, Taft College is in the playoffs.
After securing one of the final play-in slots on the northern side of the CCCAA baseball playoff bracket, the Cougars (23-18) ran away with an 11-3 victory on Tuesday against Los Medanos College, and now, beginning this afternoon, they face San Joaquin Delta College — the overall number-one seed and best program in the state — in a best-of-three playoff series in Stockton. It’s a hell of a first-time postseason draw for head coach Vince Maiocco and the Cougars, but after a twenty-something year playoff drought, having to face down the Mustangs is a little poetic. Why not jump right in the deep end? Delta (34-6) is loaded, likely to roll past Taft and the rest of the bracket towards a state championship later this month. They’ll be strong again next year, and the year after that, and on and on as they’ve been for a long time now.
But beyond Delta, it’s little-known Taft College that bears watching, as it’s no coincidence that this is the year the Cougars are playoff-bound. If things go well, this won’t be a one-off playoff run, but the start of something big, all thanks to the trust Maiocco put in new hitting coach J.L. Buchanan. A Colorado native, Buchanan was the hitting coach at West Hills Coalinga, one of Taft’s Central Valley Conference rivals, when an opportunity opened up last fall with Taft. It was a spot Buchanan long wanted, because he felt the Cougars weren’t properly utilizing their home field. So, he pitched Maiocco about becoming the hitting coach — and making some major changes.
“[Maiocco] saw my work at West Hills, getting them to a .300 batting average last year, which was a big accomplishment for that program,” Buchanan told me before the Los Medanos game earlier this week. “I made the case to him that, look, what I do fits your field perfectly. And to his credit, he really let me do my thing, and once he started seeing results, he bought in. Balls were just flying out of the yard in batting practice after the first few weeks, and that sold it.”
Letting Buchanan do his thing meant allowing the hitting coach to throw his new players into the deep end of how baseball is increasingly being played at the professional level: launch angles and exit velocity; home runs, and strikeouts. Upon Buchanan’s arrival at Taft, gone were the days of bunting a runner over every time someone reaches base — still unfortunately a staple across much of the college baseball landscape.
Instead, Taft College went all-in as an incubator of sorts in the “hit it in the air” experiment, a tiny California junior college outpost trying to be like the pros. Throughout the fall, they measured hand speed, launch angle, and exit velocity as best they could with Zepp products on their bats. Buchanan brought new swing mechanics and bat plane adjustments to the Cougars’ lineup. After a few months of major changes, the guys started to buy in. Soon thereafter, so too did Maiocco. By the time the season started, Buchanan’s experiment was ready for the CCCAA baseball world to see.
And it worked.
Oh boy, did it work.
Beginning this afternoon, Delta must face the second-best home run-hitting team in the state. The Cougars have 45 long balls through 41 games this year, including five in their first-round playoff win against Los Medanos. Twelve players have hit homers this season — an almost unheard-of number for a junior college lineup — with Jade Smoot (8), Wes Hebert (8), and Alec Olsen (7) leading the way. Add 75 doubles to that, too, and Taft’s .452 slugging percentage is twelfth-best in the state. A middle-of-the-road club a year ago, the Cougars now suddenly boast a dangerous lineup good enough to get them over the playoff hump.
“Look at our field,” Buchanan said, acknowledging the 306-foot line and 325-foot gap that make for a short porch in left field. “We’re playing to our advantage. We like big, physical right-handed hitters who can get the ball in the air. And we only have three sophomores playing on a regular basis, so you think about how this can build, how this can help our program going into next year with guys like Wes and Jade coming back.”
There are some negatives to the hit-it-in-the-air approach; the Cougars have struck out 360 times — third-most in all of California — but the first year of the J.L. Buchanan experiment has gone about as well as Taft College could have hoped. Even the strikeouts have an unintended consequence that could make Taft an underdog darling this weekend.
“One of the ways we win games is by raising pitch counts early,” Buchanan noted. “A lot of our strikeouts are 2-2 counts, 3-2 counts with foul balls, and we’ll get a pitcher past 100 pitches before the sixth inning. We want to get to the bullpen an inning before everyone else. There’s typically only one really good guy in each bullpen, but besides that, you can put some pressure on people when you get past the starter. So to that end, I’m OK with the strikeouts. I wish the CCCAA had a BABIP stat out there, because I’d like to see what our BABIP is right now. I bet we lead the state.”
The J.L. Buchanan experiment has brought more than just homers, though.
Located a few dozen miles southwest of Bakersfield in an oil-rich but otherwise barren area of rural Kern County, Taft College hasn’t historically been a desirable landing spot for top-level recruits and Division I transfers. The campus is nice, and the Cougars’ baseball facility is among the better ones you’ll see at this level, but the town is small and isolated, and it’s a tough sell to woo high-level recruits and bounce-backs away from the traditional baseball powerhouses in Orange County or northern California. But now that the Cougars are all-in on letting sluggers put up numbers, that may change quickly.
“Wes Hebert was a redshirt [at LSU-Eunice] in Louisiana, and I said to him, ‘dude, I’ve seen your bat speed, I know your size, we’ve got this [short] fence, you are what this state wants right now. Come put in some work and get seen by people,'” Buchanan noted about how the recruiting pitch has changed. “If we continue to win and be a playoff team like we are this year, we can attract more of those guys. I want to start seeing Division I kickbacks and upper-level Division II kickbacks, guys who are looking to come put in work, and put up numbers, and not get bothered by outside influence.”
That may sound like a common sense recruiting pitch to an outsider, but Buchanan’s hands-off approach to let everyone hit away and put up numbers isn’t always the standard at this level. Sacrifice bunting still rules the day for many programs — which is fine, to a point, but frustrating for bounce-back transfers looking to put up numbers and attract Division I recruiting interest. Buchanan grimaced as I relayed a story about how, in a game several weeks earlier, I saw another CCCAA playoff team order their cleanup hitter to lay down a sacrifice bunt with a runner on first in the sixth inning of a game they were already leading by four runs.
“I see a lot of programs that are training players to win games, and that means doing things like bunting and moving runners over,” he said. “I understand that, but I can’t do that. I want players to excel at the next level. That’s every player’s goal anyways, to excel at the next level, whether that’s a four-year program or pro ball. So everything we train here is going to be upper level with that as our intention.”
Regardless of how this weekend’s playoff series up plays out, that broader intention—and sticking with the J.L. Buchanan experiment—should serve Taft College well. If things go right, there will be more playoff baseball ahead for the Cougars. More importantly, Taft College might actually become a destination school for sluggers who want to attract big-time college and MLB Draft interest — no small feat that could usher in something of a golden age for the program.
“We really hope that’s we’re headed,” Buchanan said. “It’s nothing you can guarantee, obviously, but I really think this program is trending up right now.”
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