April 21, 2008
College coaches seldom open a door to welcome an athlete seeking a place to play a senior season.
Most fear that any athlete needing a program for only one year is carrying too much baggage to get through the door even if it was open. The potential for chaos in the dressing room and off of the field is often far greater than the promise of success such a player might bring.
Lipscomb University baseball coach Jeff Forehand opened the door not once, but three times this year. He added shortstop Jorge "Jo Jo" Gutierrez, left fielder Blake Bratcher and left-handed pitcher Michael Dunn. Gutierrez and Bratcher have both been starters this season. Dunn is the third starter in the rotation for Atlantic Sun games.
All three have been major contributors to the Bisons posting 21-18 record overall and a 15-9 mark in the A-Sun, good enough for second place with three conference series remaining.
"Some coaches push those players away," said Forehand. "I kind of welcome those types of players. All three have been not only good additions on the field for us, but three of our team leaders as well. It is all about the experience these guys bring to a league that is really tough. There is no substitute for that experience."
The toughest part of the transition for each player was convincing their new teammates they belong in a purple and gold uniform.
"When a guy comes in for one year first impressions at fall practice are important," said Forehand. "The rest of the guys are going to watch how a new player like that goes about his business.
"They all three know what they have to do to make themselves better personally. They are also great team guys. They transferred here to have great senior seasons individually, but they also want to move on in the postseason and keep on playing as long as they can."
The key to signing the trio was the fact that Forehand knew the history of each player. He had recruited Gutierrez and Bratcher while he was still the baseball coach at Trevecca Nazarene University. He knew about Dunn because he was playing at Austin Peay State University. In addition, his father, Philip Dunn, is a Lipscomb University alum.
"They all three came in here with an intangible that draws people to them," Forehand said. "It allowed them to quickly be let into being a part of a new team.
"Jo Jo made an impact that was huge as far as being one of the biggest leaders on our team both vocally on the field and as a good presence off of the field."
Gutierrez has also earned a great deal of additional respect from his teammates for the way he has overcome adversity this season. He was hit on his wrist by a pitched ball in the first Atlantic Sun series of the season against Belmont. Despite the injury he has started all 39 games.
Gutierrez is from Miami, Fla. He made the transition to the Bisons from UAB. He is batting .296 with 12 doubles, two home runs and 24 runs batted in.
"His wrist injury is holding him back," Forehand said. "If he wasn't hurt he would be flirting with a .400 average instead of a .300 average."
The frustration of not being healthy can often be seen on Gutierrez's face after a less than successful trip to the plate. Forehand is sympathetic to what Gutierrez is going through on a daily basis.
"Jo Jo has had some at bats where I know he has been frustrated because he knows he could have done something else if his wrist had been stronger," Forehand said. "He has pushed through it and still plays at the top of his game. He is putting balls out of the park and is getting clutch hits."
"He is a veteran. He knows it is his last go around. He has to play no matter how he feels."
Bratcher calls Nashville home. He switched from St. Louis University to the Bisons. He is batting .299 with 10 doubles and 28 RBI. He has played in 37 games and started in 36.
"We knew Blake was going to come in here and have a chance to make a huge impact on the field. He has been pretty much the everyday guy in left field. He has a shoulder injury so we have had to back off with him a little bit.
"I had not seen him play in a couple of years. He has been solid for us hitting in the middle of the order.
"He is patient at the plate. He is seasoned. He approaches every at bat from the standpoint of knowing what he needs to accomplish every time he goes up there. Even when he makes an out he understands why he made it and makes an adjustment the next at bat. Sometimes you don't get that from a younger guy."
Dunn, a Hopkinsville, Ky., resident, was the most unexpected addition of the three.
"He kind of fell into our lap last summer," Forehand said. "It was different from Mike. He just came here out of the blue. I called his coach and we had a good conversation. He recommended Mike highly."
Dunn has a 3-3 record and 4.98 earned run average. He has started nine games this season and has recorded two complete games.
"When we saw him late in the summer we felt like he could be one of our starters," Forehand. "Every third game is his and will be for the rest of the year. He could pitch in the No. 2 or No.1 spot as well."