Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
Sometimes I forget how fun high school baseball is, and then a player breaks out a lucky bat.
But first, let me set the scene.
The Sarasota High baseball team hosted Venice High on March 11. Entering the game, the Sailors were 2-2, and struggling at the plate, averaging 3.5 runs a game. Venice, the Class 7A defending state champion, was 4-0 and ranked 17th in MaxPreps “Xcellent 25” national rankings. Of course, the Sailors reached the Class 8A title game themselves, so this was an example of a can’t-miss matchup.
The Indians' starting pitcher was Danny Rodriguez, a Florida Gulf Coast commit. After the first inning, in which the Sailors struck out twice, bench boss Clyde Metcalf gave his team some notes. Before I dive into them, I’m going to give you one of my own: When you attend Sailors games, sit within earshot of Metcalf. You will probably leave with more baseball knowledge than you brought. I am a lifelong fan of the game, I played it for a decade — I recently even coached it — and I found myself enraptured by Metcalf’s eye for detail.
Metcalf told his team, not particularly quietly, that Rodriguez was throwing an 85 mph fastball and a 70 mph changeup that had knuckleball-like movement and break. Both were causing issues.
“We have to change our approach,” Metcalf said. “Choke up (on the bat) if you have to. Swallow your pride.”
The Sailors didn’t listen. They were hitless through four innings, and a leadoff single in the fifth turned into nothing, though Rodriguez did leave the game with two outs. They trailed 1-0 heading into the sixth.
All the while, Metcalf gave tips. Move closer to the plate to take off some of the changeup’s break. Defensively, once a pitch is through the hitting zone, someone needs to already be at second base to cover steal attempts. Charge ground balls from left-handed batters when the bat makes contact with the ball, not when the ball hits the ground, because by then it is too late.
The Sailors never figured out Rodriguez, but they figured out Venice’s relief pitching. Senior outfielder/pitcher Michael Dorso hit a routine grounder to shortstop, but reached first base (and took second) on a bad throw. Junior outfielder Uriel Hernandez knocked Dorso home with a single to tie the game.
Then senior catcher Owen Ayers stepped to the plate. Before the inning, Ayers told his coaches that he was going to switch bats. He pulled out a silver beat-up, hefty bat from under a pile of bags, which he used in lieu of his previous bat choice.
“This game, I was using a smaller bat to adapt to their pitching,” Ayers said. “For the last one, I had to go with the bat I was more comfortable with. I’m going to stick with it. That is the bat I was looking to use this year, and it has been working.”
It worked again this time. Ayers smashed a line drive over the center fielder’s head and into the left center gap. Hernandez scored from first base after a play at the plate, and Ayers took third, sending the crowd berserk.
The Sailors would go on to win 3-1, then beat district foe Manatee High 11-1 the next night. They play Manatee again March 14, then head into next week’s annual Sarasota Baseball Classic — March 18-21 at various locations in the area — against a collection of top teams. Ayers said the Venice win should provide some momentum to the team. Without his big hit, it might not have happened.
But what about Metcalf? Was it his words of wisdom finally sticking that led to the big sixth inning?
“No, I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Metcalf said. “I think we just started seeing good pitches. Rodriguez threw a great game. It was good to get him out. He was excellent. But David Barrett (Sailors pitcher, five innings, one run allowed) was excellent, too. It was a great high school baseball game.”
That about sums it up. Coaches can give all the advice they want, but sometimes in baseball, teams can’t hit until they can. They pitch lights out until they don’t. A lucky bat can save the day. It is a game of making less big mistakes, and for all the Sailors' little ones, they saved their best moments for last. They are 4-2 now, and the team that reached the state title game last year is starting to show its potential.
What is more fun than that?