Of the 10 baseball teams that have qualified for next week’s NAIA World Series, it’s a safe bet only the St. Thomas University Bobcats are packing a rake for the trip to Lewiston, Idaho.
But this is no ordinary rake. It’s a golden one, symbolic of how the team “rakes”, which is baseball jargon for players who can really hit.
The Bobcats — who freely admit they borrowed a page from the Miami Hurricanes football team and their turnover chain — started formulating their spinoff idea this past fall in a collaboration between sports information assistant Jon Leatherman and left fielder Nick Izquierdo.
“I told Nick, ‘Let’s do something for the hitters,” Leatherman said.
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“How about a rake idea?” Izquierdo said.
From there, Leatherman’s father, Ken, bought a four-foot rake from Home Depot and used gold-colored spray paint to complete the look.
Jon Leatherman, a 22-year-old graduate student, showed up with the rake for the first time on February 13, in a game against NCAA Division II power Nova Southeastern University. He sat the rake in a corner of the dugout but said nothing to the rest of the players.
But after STU defeated NSU 9-4, Leatherman handed the “golden rake” to right fielder Sergio Lopez, who went 4-for-5 with a double, two RBI and three runs scored.
“We told the guys that the rake had been dipped in gold,” Leatherman said. “I told Sergio: ‘You balled out. Here’s your trophy.’”
Whoever gets the golden rake brings it to the next game — that's sort of the golden rule — and there have been a lot of rakes awarded this season.
That’s because the Bobcats (56-7) lead the nation — at any level — in wins, breaking the previous school record of 54, set in 1998.
Next week’s trip to the NAIA World Series will be the sixth in school history and STU’s first since 2015, when the Bobcats finished second to host Lewis-Clark State.
As fate preferred it, the third-seeded Bobcats will open this year’s double-elimination tournament against sixth-seeded Lewis-Clark (38-11) on Fridayat 10 p.m.
“It will be a great atmosphere,” said Bobcats coach Jorge Perez, whose team will fly out to Idaho on Monday. “They will have about 4,000 fans for that first game, and we’ll have to adjust to the thin air.”
So far this season, the Bobcats have made every possible adjustment. They rank second in NAIA with 10.1 runs per game, and five starters are hitting over .395.
In other words, these guys can truly rake.
Catcher/DH Elih Marrero, the team’s top draft prospect (top five rounds), is hitting .374 and leads the team with 79 RBI. Catcher/DH Nelson Mompierre is hitting .396 with a team-best 15 homers and could get drafted in the top 20 rounds. He also leads the team with eight golden rakes, and he was named the Sun Conference Player of the Year.
In the infield, first baseman Chris Garabedian is batting .407; second baseman Jackie Urbaez is hitting .397 and leads the nation with 85 runs scored; shortstop Erick Delgado is batting .405; and third baseman Randy Oliva is batting .295.
Left fielder Nick Izquierdo leads the team with a .448 batting average; center fielder Oscar
Rodriguez is batting .328; and right fielder Lopez is batting .344 with 13 homers with a team-best four triples.
“I’ve been playing baseball a long time,” said Izquierdo, who is from Hollywood Chaminade, “and this is the best hitting team I’ve ever been on.”
The pitching is pretty good, too, led by ace Orlando Rodriguez (14-0, 2.44 ERA), who leads the nation in wins. Chris Rodriguez (11-1, 2.56) and Ian Exposito (9-1, 3.04) round out the rotation, and Erne Valdes (1.82 ERA, eight saves) is the closer.
Of those players, four are transfers from NCAA Division I schools: Marrero (Mississippi State); Mompierre (Missouri); Oliva (FAU); and Exposito (Florida Gulf Coast).
In terms of its schedule, STU finished 10-1 against NCAA Division II schools, including 2-0 vs. NSU, which is ranked seventh in the nation and won a national title in 2016.
The Bobcats put together an 18-game win streak from March 23 to April 21and have never lost more than one contest in a row all season.
And, since Feb. 13, the golden rake has been along for the wide ride every step of the way. The players give it fresh paint after every couple of games, and the rake got its own seat on the 13-hour bus ride home from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Thursday night as the Bobcats returned from winning a five-team regional tournament to qualify for the World Series.
As for Idaho, Leatherman will pack the rake in his suitcase to make sure it’s ready to go as needed.
“Hopefully,” said Leatherman, mindful of what the Bobcats need to do to win the NAIA World Series, “we will give out the golden rake five more times this year.”