Behr: Pioneers win with fundamental baseball
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Watauga's baseball team has taken that to heart.
The Pioneers (11-10, 5-5 Northwestern Conference), after getting off to a terrible start, are playing their best baseball at the right time of the season. Watauga, after starting the season with a 2-9 record, has won nine of its last 10 games following a 24-9 victory against NWC foe Fred T. Foard and a 3-2 win over A.C. Reynolds at ASU's Smith Stadium.
There are several factors involved in the change, but two stand out the most.
Watauga is pitching the ball better and catching the ball better.
In a game that can involve more strategy than invading a country, losing a baseball game is much easier than winning one. Start with a couple of walks, combine them with a single, and chances are that runner will score by the end of the inning.
Watauga's pitching staff was walking too many batters at the start of the season. Too often, they led to big innings for opponents and was enough for opponents to overtake the Pioneers, who built big leads, but could not keep them.
Making things worse was a Watauga defense that was making too many errors. It only made the impact of those walks larger.
Those days seem to be over. The Pioneers hit a low in their season when they lost to East Rutherford's junior varsity in the East Rutherford Easter Tournament. Watauga, which is no stranger to the state 4-A playoffs, isn't supposed to lose to JV teams unless Madison Bumgarner is pitching for the JVs.
Watauga coach Pete Hardee made an adjustment to the batting order by moving Jesse Illich to lead-off, moving lead-off hitter Tyler Jones to second and Ryder Jones to third.
The offense responded with big wins over Gaston Academy and R.S. Central.
The defense soon caught up. Carson Isaacs settled in at third base, Ryder Jones at shortstop and Utah Jones at second. Matt Lambert was called up from the JVs and has taken over first base.
Watauga's pitching staff followed suit. Ryder Jones, already effective, stayed steady.
Other pitchers, particularly Tripp Taylor, Hunter Isaacs, Chance Richards, Andrew Miller and Utah Jones made big contributions in key 3-2 victories over Northwestern Conference 4-A arch-rivals Alexander Central and South Caldwell last week.
Suddenly, Watauga converted from a young team lacking experience into a team nobody should want to play once the Northwestern Conference Tournament rolls around.
To be fair, Watauga played its first 13 games on the road because of its schedule and inclement weather, which turned Watauga's field into something that looks like a big bowl of chili. Had Appalachian State not allowed Watauga to play five games at Smith Stadium, the Pioneers would still be reworking their schedule.
Watauga has played three games at their home field, including their 3-2 win over South Caldwell.
Prep baseball teams should be expected to win games on the road. But winning 13 of them is a tall order, even though Watauga was rarely blown out in those 13 games.
Watauga must also be cut some slack because of lack of outside practice time. A wet field doesn't help a defense get ready to play South Caldwell or Alexander Central. It also doesn't help pitchers and batters trying to prepare for a season.
An indoor facility would be a nice addition to the Watauga campus. So would a FieldTurf baseball (and softball for that matter) field.
Ironically, Watauga's two victories at the Easter Tournament, both road victories, sparked Watauga's resurgence.
The revamped pitching staff, once a liability, is now a strength. They allowed the ace of the staff, Ryder Jones, to rest his arm, which tightened up before the game against South Caldwell.
It also allows the Pioneers a shot at winning games that Ryder Jones doesn't pitch.
Hunter Isaacs, in particular, has made a big impact in the rotation. The sophomore started the season on the junior varsity, but pitched six quality minutes in Watauga's 3-2 vicory over Alexander Central.
They don't throw 90 miles per hour. They don't have to.
What they're doing to get batters out is simple - they're throwing strikes.