Under the bright sun on a crystal clear March afternoon, Warhorse head coach Anthony Lee is working on a drill with his pitching staff.
The exercise is designed to keep pitchers from getting out of position when they are fielding ground balls. More importantly, it illustrates the attention to detail that has helped the Owen baseball team get off to a strong start this season.
The Warhorses entered the season with a lineup that wasn’t expected to generate much power. But what the team lacks in ability to hit the deep ball, it makes up for in speed and athleticism. That combination lends itself to bringing runners across the plate.
“For the most part we’ve played solid defense. We’ve found ways to get runners on base and found different ways to manufacture runs,” Lee said.
The Warhorses averaged nearly 8.5 runs per game in their first five victories of the season, recording 10-run outputs in two of those contests. The early offensive production, led Brian Bartlett’s hot bat, is a stark contrast to last season’s team that struggled to score runs.
Bartlett batted around .500 through the first half of the season, hitting safely in each of Owen’s first eight games. The feat is even more impressive considering that the junior was the leading scorer for the school’s basketball team. It’s run into the second round of the state playoffs ended just days before baseball season began.
“We got to face a lot more live pitching this offseason than we did last year,” Bartlett said. “When we would have late practices for basketball, we were able to find time to come down to the field and hit in order to get ready for baseball. The basketball players would communicate with each other, and we would find time to come down here on the weekends to get ready too.”
Offseason work is also evident in the performance of senior Brady Parker, who recorded Owen’s only home run so far during an 8-7 win over conference rival Mountain Heritage March 18.
Parker has been a key offensive piece for the Warhorses since his sophomore debut, when he picked up 10 RBIs in just 66 at-bats. But, Parker believes, it is on the mound where Owen is seeing the biggest difference this season.
“We have a lot of guys that are juniors this year that got to pitch a lot on junior varsity last year,” said Parker, who has four appearances on the mound this season. “Those guys have done a nice job for us. We also have Holsten (Kent) and Hunter (Baxter), two seniors. They’ve stepped up in a big way too.”
The addition of reliable arms is also significant for Lee, whobelieves good pitching and fundamental defense are key to building a strong foundation every year.
“Defensively I think you have to be able to cover gaps,” he said. “And we’ve been able to run down fly balls and line drives this year that could have fallen, but we turned them into outs. We’re also closing up holes in the infield this year too. Brian Bartlett and Kaleb Waycaster have done a good job up the middle.”
Another key contributor on the defensive side has been catcher Aaron Stone, Lee said.
“We’ve used our speed and athleticism to score runs on other teams’ passed balls,” he said. “But Aaron has done a great job of keeping everything in front of him.”
Stone’s prowess behind the plate makes him an ideal battery mate for the six pitchers who have taken the mound for the team so far this season.
“I think we have pretty good pitching depth,” Stone said. “What I mean by that is that we have probably five or six guys that can get the job done to help us get wins. We’ve got a couple of lefties, so we can mix it up. If you have a crucial situation where a team has a strong left-handed hitter, you bring one of them in for that match-up.”
Lee is optimistic that his team has the components to compete in a conference that could have four teams battling for the top spot.
“I hope we keep doing what we’ve done,” he said. “I hope we find a way to beat Mitchell again and beat Mountain Heritage again and find a way to beat Madison next time and then let them beat up on each other. I hope to find a way to go 11-1 and not lose another conference game.”