The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Sports

May 15, 2014

Scott Dudinskie on high school baseball: Look out for Eagles come playoff time

MANDATA — I’ll apologize now to coaches and parents who preach the “no ‘I’ in team” mantra.

Sorry, but baseball is masquerading as a team sport.

Sure there are nine on a side, and no one player can pitch and catch and play the field, etc.

However, every single action in a ball game is performed by an individual.

The quality of a pitch depends on one guy. Whether or not that pitch is hit hinges on one guy. If the ball is caught, how it’s relayed, and so on ... one guy at a time.

There’s no blocking to spring a ballcarrier; no setting screens for a jump shooter; no double-teaming an attacker.

If you’ve played the game and ever had the ball ripped at you with the bases loaded, or walked to the plate with two outs in the last inning, you know how solitary a game it is.

It’s not rocket science that teams with the most skilled players are often the best teams, especially in high school.

Look around our area at the district qualifiers. East Juniata, Line Mountain, Midd-West, Shikellamy, Southern Columbia and Upper Dauphin (even Milton, which is on the bubble) are loaded. Good pitching and stacked lineups all.

Those clubs, along with a few that just missed the postseason, are going to make choosing this year’s Daily Item All-Stars an absolute nightmare. So much talent.

Take Line Mountain, for example. The Eagles are currently in line for the No. 2 seed in the District 4 Class A tournament behind Canton (18-2), last year’s state runner-up.

They have quietly been one of the area’s most dominant teams, with just three losses — two to Tri-Valley League champion Upper Dauphin by just two runs each time. And the Eagles beat the rival Trojans in the Zalar Tournament title game during an unbeaten April.

“It’s not really a big surprise to me because a lot of guys we have, they’ve been playing baseball all the way up through and have been solid baseball players,” said Eagles coach Jon Raker. “I always knew they had the capability of being a good team, and that (talent), along with just the maturity of the guys, has helped.”

Line Mountain was batting .342 as a team and averaging an eyelash less then 7.0 runs per game entering play Thursday. Typically, with numbers like that, a couple mashers would be doing the all the heavy lifting. That’s not the case in Mandata, where darn near every regular is hitting better than .320.

Juniors JP Lenker and Kellen Masser lead the Eagles at .500 and .410, respectively. However, fellow junior Corey Paul (.385), senior Cory Warford (.362) and junior Colton Gaw (.351) aren’t far behind.

Juniors Brady Michael (.327) and Tanner Spatzer (.321), though sixth and seventh on the team in batting, rank second in runs scored (Michael, 17) and fourth in RBIs (Spatzer, 13).

“The thing I like most about this year is (we have) a solid lineup,” said Masser, the Eagles leadoff man. “The bottom of the lineup is really producing for us this year, and that helps a lot If they can get on and we can keep it going all the way through.”

Paul, for one, is a No. 2 hitter masquerading as nine-hole guy. He’s struck out just seven times in 49 plate appearances, and his .385 average has translated to 14 runs when turning over the lineup to Masser, Michael, Warford and Lenker.

“It makes a big difference,” said Raker, “when the bottom of the order has as good a chance of getting on base as the guys at the top of the order.”

With sticks like theirs, the Eagles are never out of a game. They may be the best-equipped team this side of Jersey Shore to win a 9-7 or 12-8 game ... or even 17-16, as was the case 10 days ago at East Juniata. They blew a 13-2 lead in that game and saw the Tigers force extra innings with two runs in the home seventh, but persevered in the eighth.

Against defending TVL champion Halifax, they were down two runs in the seventh and tied it in their half. They then went down two again in the eighth but rallied for three and a 10-9 win.

“I think last year, when the guys were a little bit younger, I don’t think they had quite the confidence they have this year,” said Raker. “We’ve been in the spot this year where we’ve been down and battled back. A couple games like that, where you’re able to pull out wins at the end when we didn’t do that last year — against the good team — that makes a big difference.”

The losses to Upper Dauphin were especially tough because the Eagles left each feeling they had beaten themselves. At Line Mountain, they loaded the bases with one out in the seventh for the middle of the order and failed to score. At Elizabethville, they gave up three unearned runs in the first two innings. Again, they lost both games by two runs.

“Mentally ... we can’t get down on ourselves if the other team makes a play, scores a run or two, or if we make a bad play,” said Masser. “We can get past those kinds of things if we come ready to play.”

And lest anyone mistakes Line Mountain for all hit, no pitch: Warford is 5-0 with a 2.15 ERA; Masser (3.00) and Michael (3.71) each have two wins; and junior Zach Bobb, while sporting a higher ERA, is 4-1.

“We’ve played pretty well as a team,” said Raker. “It’s been a different guy each game that’s stepped up. They believe they belong.”

If you ask me, Line Mountain is a district championship contender masquerading as a league runner-up.

n Scott Dudinskie covers high school baseball for The Daily Item. Email him at sdudinskie@dailyitem.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ScottDudinskie.

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