By Jeff Odom
Pitching was the key to success for the Land O’ Lakes baseball team last season.
The Gators (10-0) had a team ERA of 1.95, paced by the left arm of pitcher Brad Hencke, who was 5-4 with a 1.43 ERA in 12 appearances.
Hencke is now playing at the University of Tampa, leaving Land O’ Lakes with plenty of quality innings to replace if the Gators hope to improve on last year’s 18-10 record and runner-up finish in Class 6A-District 10.
“We’re not going to replace (Hencke); we’re just going to have to have other guys that can come up and do the job,” said Land O’ Lakes coach Calvin Baisley, who is in his 29th year at the helm.
One of the players Baisley is expecting big things from this season is Saint Leo University bound second baseman and right-handed pitcher Dylan Harris.
Harris led the squad with a .412 batting average last year while adding nine RBI. He also made six appearances on the mound (4.38 ERA) and is expected to take a spot in the Gators’ rotation.
“I think we’re going to have a solid team this year,” Harris said. “We just have to make plays at the end, and I think we’ll be really competitive. … All our pitchers throw good, and we’re looking solid on the field. We just have to put it together.”
Aside from pitching, Baisley points to the team’s defense as a major improvement from last season. Land O’ Lakes committed 32 errors and gave up nine passed balls a year ago, but Baisley said it’s been a complete turnaround from what he has seen in practice and early games.
“I see defense as our strength, believe it or not,” Baisley said. “I think this is one of the best infields I’ve ever coached, and this is definitely going to be our strength. We’re not going to be overpowering, but our guys will throw strikes, and I expect the fact that we can throw strikes and play defense to be our biggest strength.”
Shortstop and pitcher Zachary Whitaker (.329, 16 RBI*) echoed his coach and added that the team’s newfound defensive stability will make the pitching staff better.
“We did lose Brad, and that’s a big loss and a hole in pitching that someone’s got to fill in,” said Whitaker, a Shorter University signee. “I think if our defense plays well, then we’ll have a great year, and we just have to find pitching, which may be our only hole. I think we’ll be good, though.”
The Gators return plenty of pop offensively in third baseman Josh Nissen (.273, 12 RBI*), right fielder Alex Reynolds (18 RBI*), Whitaker and Harris. However, with the loss of Hencke (.244, two homeruns, 18 RBI*) and other key seniors in the lineup, the team will have to give a better effort top to bottom if it wants to return to the playoffs and contend with Mitchell and Tarpon Springs for a shot at the district championship.
“We have to develop some more depth and get more production through the rest of the lineup,” Baisley said. “We hit the ball good for the first three guys in the lineup, and then we struggle after that. So, some other guys have got to get better, and if we’re going to get to the point where we were last year we’ll have to have more than three guys swinging the bat. We’ll get there. We have guys that are capable.”
*Stats from last year
—Follow Jeff Odom on Twitter: @JOdomLaker
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