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Prep Baseball Insider: Hiawatha moves up rotation

Published: Thursday, April 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner — rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Mike Mercado, a junior, takes batting practice March 9 inside the gymnasium at Hiawatha High School in Kirkland.

It wasn’t the formula Hiawatha coach Sean Donnelly had worked out for the Hawks’ pitching staff.  

In the first game of a doubleheader with Newark on Saturday, starting pitcher Mike Mercado was removed with shoulder pain. Junior Taylor Edwards stepped in and picked up his first varsity win with a six-inning, four-hit, five-strikeout relief effort where he gave up four earned runs. It was a gutsy performance and secured the Hawks’ 14-8 win.  

Game 2 starter Tyler Burger was a scratch after Game 1 because of a tender elbow. So, Donnelly had to turn to a pitching staff by committee. Six Hawks took the mound in an eventual 19-8 loss.

“I give our guys a lot of credit for hanging in there,” Donnelly said. “We were right there for five innings, we just ran out of arms.”

While the Hawks lost their first Little Ten conference game, Donnelly has long-term plans.

“I told the team we still control things in the conference because everyone has a conference loss,” Donnelly said. “It’s early in the season and with the weather guys haven’t pitched that much. We want to make sure we don’t lose someone for the whole season because we tried to win a game in April. We want to win a conference title and peak for the playoffs. We want everyone to be healthy so we can go try and win a regional.” 

Barbs stay the course: Jake Howells has a battle-tested plan.

It’s yielded positive results in the past. Howells is sticking with it with an inexperienced DeKalb lineup that has struggled to piece together the solid at-bats needed to sustain a rally.

“The key is to keep preaching what you believe in,” Howells said. “A consistent approach at the plate, trying to hit line drives and ground balls is a method that has worked in the past. It’s method that will work if we continue to employ it.”

In a 3-1 loss in the first game of a doubleheader at Kaneland on Tuesday, the Barbs managed just three hits.

“We fought the same thing we’ve been fighting all year,” Howells said. “Hot and cold, up and down offensive production. We struggled with two strikes putting the ball in play. We struggled to put pressure on the defense.”

The Barbs and Knights are tied 3-3 in the fifth inning of the second game of the series which Howells hopes will be resumed Friday when the teams are set to meet again.

Timberwolves take control: It was an offensive explosion for Indian Creek in a two-game sweep of Paw Paw.

The Timberwolves posted 8-1 and 11-0 wins in the series as Chris Pickwell was 4 for 5 with four RBI to break out of a minislump while Logan Lee put up four hits in the two-game set.

“We’ve done a nice job of hitting up and down the order the last two days,” Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz said. “The only thing you can guarantee is a good approach at the plate. A hit is never guaranteed. But an approach where we try to work into positive counts will make a pitcher work and hopefully we can put a good swing on one of those pitches.”

Knights’ familiar view: Kaneland is undefeated in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East.

The Knights are comfortable leading the conference, they are back-to-back defending champions, but a lineup devoid of varsity experience has learned on the fly this year and is gradually rounding into form.

“We are really three batters away from a solid offensive team,” Kaneland coach Brian Aversa said. “We have six consistent hitters that turn in quality at-bats. If we can get two or three more we can become a solid offensive team.”

VIEWS: Nelson controls game from mound

Three people know what a pitcher will throw: the pitcher, catcher and coach calling pitches if everything goes according to plan.

Sometimes the middle infielders can peek into a catchers signs for positioning purposes. But, the pitcher has a massive amount of power and control in every at-bat. They will initiate the action with a pitched ball. Their ability to work swiftly can keep their defense focused. If they can consistently locate around the plate, they can work a borderline pitch or two into a called strike from the umpire.

A good pitcher will command two to three pitches and be able to locate them in the strike zone when needed.

Yet, sometimes, a pitcher can go against conventional wisdom and be effective because of the strikes he doesn’t throw.

Sycamore senior Scott Nelson did that in a 2-0 win against Morris on Monday. The 6-foot-8 senior improved to 3-0 and threw just 94 pitches in a complete game three-hitter with eight strikeouts. He faced just 28 batters and seemed to always throw a first-pitch strike.

He had just 53 pitches in the fifth inning because of his savvy approach. When he knew Morris would take a pitch, he’d zero in on a sure-strike fastball. When he felt the Redskins were in swing away mode, it was time to tickle the edges of the strike zone or miss it altogether.

“Scott has been lights out,” Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said about the Spartans’ staff ace who has a 3-0 record, a 1.00 ERA and has given up one earned run in 13 Northern Illinois Big 12 East innings. “He throws the first pitch for a strike. They managed one legitimate hit in the seventh inning. There was an infield hit and a blooper. His one walk was to their three hitter and he went to a full count. Given the situation that was the guy we didn’t want to beat us, so he didn’t give in.”

Because Nelson can located his pitches and sets a rhythm where his pitches are frequently around the plate hitters and umpires get familiar with swinging and calling strikes.

It’s a battle for hitters to guess and then react to the pitch according to DeKalb coach Jake Howells.

“You’ve got to be able to throw more than one pitch for a strike,” Howells said. “Good pitchers throw a few different pitches for a strike. They’ve also got to know where the pitch is going. If a guy only throws one pitch for a strike it’s hard to fool a hitter because they can take the others out of the equation and not swing at them.”

When pitchers get in the kind of groove Nelson was in on Monday, they can take their game to a whole new level.

“When you’re locating three pitches for strikes you can start to work backwards,” Howells said. “Throw fastballs in breaking ball counts. Go 2-0 and snap off a curve ball or changeup. That makes it even harder for hitters to sit on something.”

If a pitcher can get to that level, they’d have even more power over the game.

James Nokes is a contributor to the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at sports@daily-chronicle.com.

SPOTLIGHT ON

Blake Sowell, Kaneland, senior, pitcher The spring has washed away any consistency in scheduling with inclement weather and cold. Pitchers are especially challenged when it comes to the establishment of a consistent rotation. More work and warmer weather are key to finesse pitch development, locating pitches and just getting into a consistent groove.

Sowell wasn’t bothered by the sporadic scheduling issues this spring. The Clarke University recruit has had four starts canceled, yet tossed a complete-game three-hitter with seven strikeouts in a 3-1 win against DeKalb on Tuesday. Sowell didn’t surrender an earned run. The Barbs managed a bloop single and two infield hits.

“We just try to keep our pitchers arms moving,” Kaneland coach Brian Aversa said when asked what the Knights do to stay game-ready. “We get them a bullpen, whether its inside or outside every couple days. We do what we can indoors. It’s tough, but Blake has done a great job of going out and staying focused.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Kaneland at Rochelle, doubleheader, 10 a.m., Saturday Four conference games in two days await the Knights. Even as Kaneland coach Brian Aversa searches for a consistent lineup, the two-time defending Northern Illinois Big 12 East champions could put themselves in a familiar position atop the conference standings.

Hiawatha and Indian Creek, 4:30 p.m., today and Friday The T’Wolves host the first-place Hawks today and head to Kirkland on Friday for a pivotal two-game set. Hiawatha will try to tighten its grip on first place in the Little Ten and a young Indian Creek team will look for a confidence-building win.

“We know we have two tough games in store this week,” Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz said. “Hiawatha is a quality team and is also in our regional.”

POWER RANKINGS

1. Hiawatha (5-1, 5-0 Little Ten) 2. Sycamore (7-4, 2-1 NI Big 12 East) 3. Hinckley-Big Rock (7-3, 6-1 LTC) 4. Kaneland (5-6, 2-0 NI Big 12 East) 5. DeKalb (5-7, 1-2 NI Big 12 East) 6. Indian Creek (5-5, 3-3 LTC) 7. Genoa-Kingston (2-9, 1-2 BNC East)

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