Nic Ready’s childhood summers were spent in professional baseball clubhouses.
Born the year his father, Randy, finished his 13-year major league playing career, Nic missed that part but not the coaching career that followed. He and his five brothers tagged along and soaked in the experience.
“I grew up in a locker room, probably against my mother’s advice,” said Ready, the slugging Air Force first baseman. “I had to watch what I was saying when I learned bad words.”
When Falcons coach Mike Kazlausky talks about the “culture” of his team, he’s talking about a lot more than the words spoken in clubhouses – but Ready, with his pedigree, talent and background, is a nice place to start.
“He has to step to the forefront and be our leader, and he has done just that," Kazlausky said.
Ready ranks in the top five in the Mountain West in home runs (13), RBIs (42), runs (39), slugging percentage (.652) and total bases (111). A junior who is already a three-year starter, he’ll likely leave with his name all over the team’s record book.
But for Air Force, the culture and direction of the program has been about more than one player. Two years ago, the Falcons had one of the best pitching staffs in team history – paced by third-round MLB draft pick Griffin Jax – and went 30-27 (12-18 Mountain West) for the program’s first 30-win season.
Last year, without Jax, the pitching struggled to support a superb offense and the team went 29-27 (12-17).
This year the Falcons faced the prospect of losing much of that offensive firepower without any clear answers on the mound. They hoped many of those arms would be improved simply by being a bit more experienced, but for a program that went 22-203 in conference games from 2003-11, assumptions aren’t a luxury Air Force is afforded.
Yet here the Falcons are, sitting 10-10 in conference play with three series remaining against teams with losing records – the first starting Friday at Fresno State. Air Force has a very real shot at posting its first season above .500 in conference play. Ever.
“I’m well aware of that,” Kazlausky said. “The overall culture of the program has just been getting better and better. That’s what we’re going to expect to continue.”
A huge difference has been the pitching staff. Led by senior Nick Biancalana (who posted a 2.27 ERA before suffering an elbow injury that will likely end his career), the Falcons have given up 6.8 runs per game after surrendering 8.3 last year.
“We’ve played a lot more of a team game this year, it’s been great,” said Ryan Holloway, a junior who is 3-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 50 innings. “And we're trusting our stuff.”
“Trusting your stuff” means throwing more strikes, relying on the quality of your pitches and the defense behind you. Walks have decreased from 5.1 per game last year to 4.6 this year.
“I think they’re confident,” said catcher Rob Dau, a junior on a roster filled with upperclassmen. “It’s a team chemistry thing.”
Offensively, Dau’s improvement has been key, as he has emerged into a .359 hitter with an active 27-game hitting streak. Ryan Robb (.349), Colby Brown (.337) and Drew Wiss (team-high .422 on-base percentage) have emerged this year. Sophomore Ashton Easley carries a .592 slugging percentage and shortstop Tyler Zabojnik is one of the best at that position in program history after leading the Mountain West in doubles each of the past two seasons.
But the key weapon is Ready, whose days as a child that weren’t spent at the ballpark were spent with his brothers playing basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, tennis and soccer. There was no specialization, even with a professional baseball player for a father. They just wanted to compete and be good at everything.
That’s the culture Air Force baseball is trying to instill. And it appears to be working.