SIKESTON -- For two years, the Sikeston Bulls have been bringing up the rear in the KIT League standings.
The Bulls, known as the Bootheel Bombers in its first season three years ago, showed improvement last season but still only managed a 16-33 record while finishing in last place.
The Bulls were simply awful on the road, winning just three games out of 24 contests, although they were respectable at home, going 13-12.
This year, however the team has not only improved its record, but they are contending for the league championship.
At the midpoint of the season, Sikeston was 12-13 after getting swept in a doubleheader on Saturday.
The Bulls rebounded to defeat Farmington on the road on Sunday behind a nine-inning shutout by Lance Young to even their record at .500.
The team has already tied last season's win total and have obliterated the team's road record from last year. In fact, the team has been better on the road than at home this season.
"It's good to get to this point, but our goal is to win the league," said first-
year Sikeston coach Jamie Puckett. "We've been in the race since Day 1. We're not even looking at last year's team. This is a whole new team and a whole new group of players."
What has been the difference?
Improved pitching and, at times, spectacular defense have been the catalysts for the Bulls this season.
"Our pitching and defense have been there all year, and that's what wins championships," said Puckett. "If we're going to win the league, that's what's going to win it. Hitting can be average, but if you have above average pitching and defense, then you're going to win."
The team still has an inconsistent offense, but team speed and a "small ball" approach have offset some of the limitations, although the team hasn't been as efficient in moving runners over as Puckett would like.
"Even though the offense has struggled, pretty much every team in this league has struggled with the wood bats," said Puckett. "So yes, we're struggling, but so is everybody else.
"We struggle at small ball and it's sad. That's the main part, getting bunts down and moving runners over. So we haven't been good in that aspect, but at the same time we're getting better."
With speed merchants such as Derrick Washington, Robbie Hohler and Mason Mosby, simple ground balls can turn into base hits.
The team has been besieged with injuries lately with the Bulls' No. 1 pitcher Todd Otto going down with an arm injury.
Also, shortstop J.R. Bizzell (dislocated finger) and outfielder Jared Hughes have missed significant time with injuries.
Catcher Nico Gregali missed nearly a month with a wrist injury.
But Puckett has managed to patch together a competitive lineup despite the setbacks.
It's no surprise that the Bulls have also seen an increase in attendance this year.
According to general manager Fred Johnson, the team has already surpassed last year's attendance mark.
"Attendance has been a whole lot better from last year," said Puckett. "I still think it could be better. The more people that are in the stands, the better our players will play. They just respond to people in the stands."
Even though the team has improved talent, Puckett thinks a change in attitude has been the biggest difference this season.
"The whole difference with this team is the chemistry," said Puckett.
"Everybody has gotten along with each other since Day 1. When you get along with your teammates, it makes it a lot more fun for you. This team just has more fun than they've had in the past years.
"We've never had any complaints about playing time or starting or whatever. They just want to win."
Puckett also pointed out that Ryan Poole, the team's third baseman and pitcher, was recently signed by Southeast Missouri State University, making him the first Bull player to be signed by a college.
Poole just completed his eligibility at Three Rivers Community College.
"That's huge for our program," said Puckett. "I emailed (SEMO) coach (Mark) Hogan and two days later he sent a hitting coach and a pitching coach. And then Poole goes out there and strikes out 12 batters and pitched the game of his life. That's what I'm talking about. You didn't have focused players like that last year. This group is focused and they're determined to win and improve as players."
There will be an all-star game later this month.
The Bulls have a handful of players that are expected to contend for a roster spot of KIT League All-Stars.
Washington, a centerfielder, is batting .342 with 21 runs and an on-base percentage of .449.
Hohler, who is now playing shortstop in place of the injured Bizzell, is batting .281 with 12 runs, 14 walks, a .446 OBP and leads the team with nine steals.
Mosby leads the team in most offensive categories, including hits (30), average (.370) and RBIs (16). He also carries a .422 OBP.
On the mound, Otto, who could return in the next couple weeks, is 3-0 on the hill in 24 innings and a microscopic earned run average of 0.75.
Young is 3-3 this year in 39 innings, with 32 strikeouts and a 2.08 ERA.
Robert Anders is 3-2 on the year in 33 1/3 innings with a 2.99 ERA and 25 strikeouts.
Puckett also wanted to point out the hard work done by general manager Fred Johnson, who runs the daily operations of the program.
"Fred has done a good job of getting the fans interested in the team," said Puckett. "He's done great getting sponsors for the team and getting the word out. The best thing is he takes care of us on the road, getting us meals and getting us hotel rooms. He's been with us every step of the way. He's been to every single road game and every home game but maybe one or two. Fred makes our jobs a lot easier."
The Bulls have a doubleheader tonight with Farmington at 5:30 p.m. at VFW Stadium.