An AHSAA-sanctioned reduction in the maximum number of games a team can play (28, plus an unlimited number during spring break) coupled with the usual early-season weather cancellations has rendered pitching depth a luxury rather than a necessity for local high school baseball teams.
But it’s a luxury that Phil Campbell coach Jonathan Raper is still happy to have.
Through Sunday, the Bobcats (8-4) had used 10 different pitchers, none of whom had appeared in more than four games or thrown more than 17 innings. Those 10 pitchers had combined for a 2.60 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 77.2 innings.
“This is probably the best pitching I’ve had since I’ve been at Phil Campbell,” Raper said on Monday. “We’ve pitched a lot of kids, and we have some kids that haven’t even thrown yet that threw for us last year. We’ve got some young kids that haven’t got an opportunity to throw as much as I’d like to see them.”
Phil Campbell’s veteran staff is led by two seniors, Hayden Copeland and Nick Swinney, and two juniors, Peyton Thomas and Chase Hutchens, all of whom filled key roles on the mound for last year’s team that won 21 games and reached the second round of the Class 2A playoffs. Hutchens had logged a team-high 16.2 innings through Sunday, including a complete game in a 4-1 win at Marion County on Opening Day. The 6’0, 215-pound right-hander allowed just four earned runs in his first four appearances (three of which were starts), striking out 16 batters and walking six.
Swinney (2-1) had also made three starts through Sunday, recording wins over Winfield and Rogers and posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 18-to-5 in 14.1 total innings. Thomas, a 6’0, 190-pound right-hander who basically didn’t pitch until the playoffs last season due to an injury, looked terrific in his first start of 2017, holding Hamilton to one earned run and striking out 10 in an 8-2 win on March 3.
Then there’s Copeland, who came into the week 2-0 with one save in three appearances. The 6’5 lefty had allowed three earned runs on six hits in 9.1 innings, striking out 11.
That quartet of experienced arms has already helped Phil Campbell put together a five-game win streak earlier this season, and it should position the Bobcats to make another run at postseason play.
“We’ve got a bunch of older kids that have been around for a while now,” Raper said. “They’ve showed up and competed every day and got after it. You expect older guys like that to show up and be ready to play, and for the most part they’ve done that.
“We’ve played pretty good so far. Overall, I’m pleased. I wish we were hitting better, but the pitching and defense have been awful good. Defensively, we’ve played well overall, but the games we’ve got beat were games where defense has hurt us. You’d love to go every game without making an error, but in twenty-three years in baseball I haven’t seen too many high school teams who can do that consistently. There are teams that do it, but we haven’t done it yet. We’re trying to get there.”
If the Bobcats can consistently throw strikes and then support that solid pitching with a defense that minimizes mistakes and doesn’t give away extra outs [of the 54 runs they had allowed in 12 games through Sunday, 25 were unearned], then run prevention should be a strong suit. Scoring runs could be, too, particularly if Thomas and Copeland continue to produce the way they have at the top of the order thus far.
Thomas, an All-State selection as a sophomore in 2016, has picked up right where he left off, batting .417 through Sunday with three home runs, five doubles and 16 runs scored out of the leadoff spot. Copeland wasn’t hitting a ton, but he was reaching base at a stellar .478 clip entering the week thanks to a team-best 15 walks (against only three strikeouts). He was also a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts through Sunday and had scored 11 runs, second-most on the team behind Thomas.
The rest of the lineup has been largely inconsistent, but Raper believes that veteran hitters like seniors Gage Roberson (team-high nine RBIs through Sunday) and Colby Baker (four extra-base hits, including a key three-run homer in a 9-4 victory over Winfield on March 2) have a knack for coming through when it counts.
“I was hoping we’d hit the ball better,” Raper said, “but we’ve had some timely hitting. We’ve got our hits when we needed them. During that stretch [of five straight wins from February 25 through March 4], it was somebody different every night. Thomas, Baker, Roberson, Swinney—somebody getting a big hit when we needed it.
“Right now, we’re not hitting the ball as well as I’d like, but we’ve got guys one through nine that are capable of hitting. Even though we’re not just stroking the baseball, we probably don’t have anybody in our lineup that hasn’t had a good day at the plate somewhere along the line.”
To Raper’s point, outfielder Mike Wrona and catcher Nick Taylor have both provided solid production at the bottom of the order. In back-to-back wins over Hamilton and Rogers on March 3-4, Wrona went 5-for-7 with two RBIs, three runs and four stolen bases. Taylor, meanwhile, ranked among team leaders entering the week with four doubles, seven RBIs and six runs scored out of the nine-spot.
One area of focus for Phil Campbell heading into next week’s area series with rival Red Bay is doing a better job protecting leads. Central rallied for six runs in the late innings to end the Bobcats’ five-game win streak on March 6, and Haleyville scored four times in the bottom of the fifth and twice in the seventh to erase an early 4-0 deficit and beat Phil Campbell 6-5 in the first game of last Friday’s doubleheader.
“Sometimes when we get ahead, it seems like we have a lack of focus,” Raper said. “We tend to relax a little. We talked the other day about having that mentality where we just put our foot on somebody and go ahead and take care of business. It seems like sometimes we jump out to a lead and we’re just happy. We have to learn not to be satisfied with the way it is, because everybody we play is capable of beating you in any inning.
“We’ve gotta learn to put in seven good innings. Right now we’re playing about five or six.”
Raper hopes that a tough early schedule featuring the likes of such larger schools as Haleyville, Central, Rogers, Deshler and New Hope has prepared his team to battle Red Bay, Lamar County and Sulligent for a playoff berth in what should be a highly competitive area.
“Area-wise, Red Bay is gonna be very good,” said Raper, whose team will host the Tigers next Tuesday in the area opener. “Coach [Richard] Maggerise does a very good job with them, and they’re a solid baseball team—good pitching, good defensively, good offensively. I don’t know much about Sulligent. One year they can be real good, and the next year they’re not. A lot depends on what athletes play. If all their athletes play, they’ll be good. And Lamar County is always very good in baseball. We’ve played them pretty much every year since I’ve been at Phil Campbell. They’ll be a little younger this year, but they’ll have a good baseball team. They’ll be well coached, they’ll play hard and they won’t beat themselves.
“I think it’ll be a tough race. I’ve got as good a baseball team as I’ve had since I’ve been here, and we could end up not making the playoffs. That’s how tough our area is.”