By Kyle LoJacono
Last season, the Gaither baseball team entered the district tournament as the No. 1 seed and favorite to win the championship, but was upset in the finals to King.
In that upset, the Cowboys (3-1) learned a team that works together is always better than a collection of talented players.
“Last year we were very talented, but I don’t think we were really a team,” said 26-year Gaither coach Frank Permuy. “I think there were times when guys were more worried about getting a scholarship then helping the team win. That team mindset was missing for us. When you’re in a close game or down by a couple runs late, it’s the team that stays together that can pull it out.”
Gaither went 21-5 in 2010 and was eliminated in the Class 5A regional quarterfinals. The Cowboys lost 12 seniors, including five who signed scholarships.
“Most people aren’t expecting much from us, but no one expected anything from King last year either,” said senior outfielder Zach Jackson. “We need to take what we learned from last year and understand that we have to play everyone as hard as we can. If we do that, we’ll be just fine.”
Permuy said the team only returns three starters, one of which is sophomore shortstop Oscar Mercado.
“Last year, it was great to start as a freshman, but it made me kind of nervous too,” Mercado said. “The shortstop is right in the middle of the field, so it feels like everyone is watching you. I don’t feel any of that now and I’m taking charge of the infield so we all know what we’re doing on every play.”
Mercado is stepping up as leader on the infield, but there is little question who is the captain of the Gaither pitching staff. Junior Alex Milne has been a starter on varsity since his freshman year and claimed No. 1 status last season, when he had an 8-0 record with a 3.13 earned run average (ERA) and 33 strikeouts.
“He’s been doing it for so long, I sometimes forget he’s only a junior,” Permuy said. “He’s a great type of leader because he knows when to be funny, when to be serious and doesn’t say too much in between.”
Milne, who committed to the University of Central Florida during last summer, throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. The lefty said his main goal is to be as effective late in the game as he is in the early innings.
“You want to be able to go the distance,” Milne said. “It makes it easier on the bullpen when they don’t have to come in for three or four innings. When they do come in, I know I can trust them because we’ve got a great pen.”
Dylan Hathcock was the Cowboys closer last year, posting five saves, a 1.71 ERA and a team-high 50 strikeouts, but he has graduated. Permuy said junior Eric Collier will be the closer this season.
“He has an arm that lets him pitch every day and has a good mentality for it,” Permuy said.
The outfield lost one of its most talented players to graduation from last year — centerfielder Drew Doty who posted a .361 batting average, 30 hits, 29 runs scored, 16 RBI and two home runs in 2010.
Cambridge Christian High junior transfer Hayden Kelley will fill the centerfield spot, while
Jackson, who is also a pitcher, will play right field for much of the season. Jackson posted a .404 batting average, 21 hits, 12 runs scored, 11 RBI and six steals last year.
It originally appeared junior Matt Frey would be the starting left fielder, but he had shoulder surgery in the offseason and will not be able to throw for several months. Frey, who hits left handed, will instead be the designated hitter, especially against right-handed starting pitchers.
Frey had the highest batting average at .490 for any Cowboy with at least five plate appearances in 2010, while adding 24 hits, 20 runs scored, 14 RBI and nine steals.
“I just try to put the bat on the ball and get on base,” said Frey of his approach at the plate. “Make contact and get on. Can’t score if you’re not on base.”
Permuy said Frey’s style will be a big help this year when the squad moves to more of a small-ball mentality.
“We waited for the homerun a lot last year because we had guys with power,” Permuy said. “I like manufacturing runs with bunts, hit and runs and steals. I think that’s exciting.”
Gaither next plays at home March 1 at 7 p.m. against Alonso.
-All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.