Pitching leads the way in early going
By Kyle LoJacono
The 2011 Land O’ Lakes baseball team went 20-9 and made the playoffs as a district runner-up, but was one and done.
The current group of Gators (12-4) is out to make back-to-back postseasons but this time plan on sticking around for a while.
“States,” said senior pitcher Ryan Wall about what is possible this season. “We want to win districts this year and go deep. We need to work to get better, but I think we have the talent to get there.”
Land O’ Lakes has to go against recent trends to make a deep run into May. The Gators last advanced past the regional quarterfinals in 2000 and have never made it to the final eight in the school’s 36-year history.
Land O’ Lakes was close to winning a playoff game last year when they took a 7-0 lead at Mitchell, but lost 11-10.
“It was a tough loss, but it was fun getting there,” said junior second baseman Dylan Harris. “Now we’ve been there and know what it’s like, and we have to take advantage of that experience.”
The Gators have started fast despite losing nine seniors, including four who signed college baseball scholarships.
“I am a little surprised we’ve done as well as we have so far,” said 28-year Land O’ Lakes coach Calvin Baisley. “The pitching was big question mark, but they’ve been better than advertised.”
Wall is one of the guys who has stepped up to replace five graduating pitchers who combined to throw 133 innings with 15 wins and seven saves a year ago.
“The senior pitchers did a good job setting the example last year,” Wall said. “I didn’t really play last year, I only threw one inning, so I watched and learned as much as I could to get ready for my senior season.”
Something must have rubbed off, as the righty Wall has a 4-2 record with a 2.26 ERA.
Land O’ Lakes returns last year’s No. 1 pitcher Brad Hencke. The 6-foot-1 lefty has posted a 3-1 record while fanning 38 batters. He has allowed two earned runs all year for an ERA of 0.40 with an opponent batting average of .122.
Also adding to the rotation is Jake Rawls, who is 1-0 with a 1.94 ERA. The pitching success has created a friendly competition to one-up each other.
“It’s great having other guys on the team who can throw strikes and get outs,” Hencke said. “They don’t give up very many runs. Coach Baisley preaches get the first pitch strike, get the first out and make the inning short. Our defense has really been helping us too.”
The hitting has been the weak spot. The Gators are batting .255 with a .354 on-base percentage while slugging a slim .321. Land O’ Lakes has only lost one game when scoring at least two runs.
“That tells me we have to score two runs more often,” Baisley said with a laugh. “Part of it is the pitching we’ve faced has been good and the hitters are younger than last year.”
Harris said the best solution is to think small.
“I’d like to see us play more small ball to get things going,” Harris said. “Last year we had a couple kids who could really stroke. We don’t have as much power this year, but we still have some really good pitchers, and it’s helping make up for that.”
Harris leads all regular starters with a .400 batting average with seven steals.
“I just look for one pitch and try to hit it hard when it comes,” Harris said. “I look for something I can get good contact on so it doesn’t get past me. … I’m just trying to find a way on so the guys behind me can drive me in.”
Harris has also taken on the vociferous leadership role.
“He’s a very smart player and is very vocal,” Baisley said. “The other players respect that.”
Land O’ Lakes is tied with Mitchell for second in Class 6A-District 10, but are the only district squad to defeat current frontrunner Tarpon Springs. That victory gives the Gators confidence they can be a factor come tournament time.
“We played Tarpon, who I think is the best team in the district, and we beat them 1-0 here and lost there 1-0,” Baisley said. “We just have to keep getting better, but we’ve played with them twice.”
Land O’ Lakes is playing in the RBI Spring Break Tournament this week. The Gators’ next scheduled game is at Wiregrass Ranch on April 11 at 7 p.m. The 6A-10 championship is at River Ridge on April 26 at 7:30 p.m.
–All states as recorded to Maxpreps.con by coaches.