Junior no. 2 starter Cody Ulmer has been effective for the Railsplitters.
John Larsen remembers the darker days, so forgive him for not allowing his sky to fall following two consecutive losses.
The Abraham Lincoln baseball coach’s team has lost two division games for the first time since 2012. Both were in a row and both were sloppy; first, there was a seven-error effort in a 6–2 loss to Philadelphia Academy Charter on April 10, followed the next day by a 7–3 loss to Esperanza that the Railsplitters once led 3–0.
Here’s the good news: Lincoln — fresh up to the Public League’s A Division following a perfect 11–0 mark last season in Division B — won its first three games of the league campaign: road wins over division stalwarts Frankford and Central, followed by a thrilling 11-inning, 4–3 win over Edison that Larsen called “one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of” following a walk-off bunt by shortstop Chafil Alvarez.
Lincoln (3–2) currently sits behind Washington, Esperanza, Franklin Towne and Philadelphia Academy, well within striking distance with the bulk of the schedule still to play. Despite the losses, Lincoln still looks like a serious Division A contender, something that hasn’t been said about this program for awhile.
“Back in the early-mid 2000s, we had seasons where we just wanted to go seven innings as to not get 10-run ruled,” Larsen said. “One year it was a goal just to make it five innings. Now, we’ve earned this trip to Division A by running the table last year. Guys have bought in. It’s a point of pride, because we’ve worked hard to get here. We don’t want to just be residents … we want to be up there with the top teams. Right now, there’s no reason to doubt that, despite the two losses.”
The main reason why Larsen is thrilled about his program’s re-ascension to the top division is that it ensures Lincoln can never really take a day off. In Division B, Lincoln had some lopsided victories, and Larsen would begin to see bad habits of an inferior opponent rubbing off on his own team. In the 13-team, 2014 version of Division A (there were eight teams in it a year ago), there is no such thing as a respite.
“Winning the division was nice and the season we had was nice,” Larsen said of his team’s 2013 campaign. “But it was unfinished. We think that once we sort out some injuries and have all our cylinders firing, we’ll be a team quite a few others won’t want to play.”
The Railsplitters are led by dynamic senior leadoff second baseman Eric Cintron, who is 10-for-19 at the plate and 5-for-5 in producing multi-hit games so far this season. Larsen called Cintron “a dirty player,” and meant it in only positive ways, saying Cintron can manufacture runs on his own the second he gets on base. The coach also gushed about his second baseman’s leadership ability.
There’s also senior third baseman/pitcher Justin Carlson, who, while just 5-for-16 at the dish to start, has won all three of Lincoln’s games on the mound, posting 24 strikeouts in 20 innings. Larsen called Carlson, who has a perfect game under his belt, a “very good number one pitcher on a Division A team.” Others Larsen expressed excitement over were the aforementioned Alvarez (on the shelf until at least next week with a hairline fracture in his thumb) and his brother, Smith, who transferred to Lincoln after playing a season at Frankford, where they were both Public League champions. Sophomore catcher Nick Houser is strong behind the plate and is a respected leader, while junior Cody Ulmer and sophomore Jason Chattley are promising, finesse arms Larsen can’t wait to see develop over the next season or two on the mound.
“These guys, they have live arms and some have beautiful swings,” Larsen said. “We just have to get them to realize baseball is a game that centers around failure. They are going to fail more often than they succeed, so it’s my job to teach them how to respond to that.”
Against Esperanza on Friday, Lincoln couldn’t pad its early 3–0 lead, and when its aggressive opponent roared back, the Railsplitters had no answers. However, the program is still undoubtedly on an upward swing; despite an early-round playoff exit a season ago, Lincoln won all of its division games and even knocked off formidable non-division foes such as Frankford, Central and Washington, so Larsen knows his group belongs. He expressed desire to be one of the top two Class AAAA schools in Division A, but also pointed out that Frankford won another Public League baseball title a year ago despite going 5–8 in the division with five other teams finishing in front of them.
The moral of the story? Larsen knows anyone is capable of going on a run, and in a long season it’s not about how you start, but where you finish. The old sporting cliche, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” still holds true in certain occasions.
“We’re in a different position than last year,” Larsen admitted. “In 2013, we got on a roll and ran the table; in the back of our minds, we knew how hard we had to work just to make the playoffs. This year in ‘A,’ which is something we wanted, every team makes the playoffs, so we want to see if we can be amongst the top two AAAA teams in the division. Beating Frankford and Central out of the chute told some teams who we are. I’m willing to teach the players and put in the time in order for us to be competitive.”
Larsen, who has a good relationship with Washington coach Ken Geiser and Frankford boss Juan Namnun, is thrilled to be in the same division as two of his local peers. He said he talks baseball with Geiser nearly every night, and that he’s complimented Namnun’s program, saying it’s one Lincoln wants to emulate and replicate to get to where Frankford has been quite a bit lately.
“Frankford has become the big dragon for everyone to slay,” Larsen said. “Winning against them only gives you confidence for down the road. Last season, we went 11–0 and were one-and-done in the playoffs, while they won five games and went on a championship run. What do we want now? Carlson and Cintron both want to go far in the playoffs. We have two guys who played at Frankford last year and have been through it. So while I’m not happy over the two games we lost, I also understand we still have a majority of the season to get through. Anything can happen.”
Anything can happen indeed, including the Railsplitters being the team that ultimately hoists the ultimate prize. For his part, Larsen is thrilled to where his team has progressed, from a division bottom-feeder that played all its games on the road a few years ago to a legitimate contender with one of the nicest baseball facilities in the area.
Things, Larsen said, are certainly on the up-and-up at Lincoln.
“Knowing where we came from, dropping down to Division B and really struggling, practicing on cement and having all road games … it’s exciting,” he said. “Just having a home field, that does something for a program. I don’t really think we’re doing anything different. We’re focusing on just doing the right things.
“I tell these guys all the time that I want them to have a sense of pride in this program that, regardless of score, people know we’re a team that does things right. If we focus on doing things right, while the result may not always go our way, good things will come sooner or later.” ••
Dual threat: Senior third baseman Justin Carlson (right) is a powerful bat in the middle of Lincoln’s order. Carlson is also the team’s top pitcher, winning all 3 of Lincoln’s division games thus far, posting 24 strikeouts in 20 innings pitched.
Everybody hits: Lincoln sophomore catcher Nick Houser takes his hacks in a recent 7–3 loss to Esperanza. The Railsplitters are 3–2 through five Public League Division A contests. Head coach John Larsen believes his team has what it takes to win a title. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS