Once the Belleville East Lancers shored up their defense, victories followed.
They have won eight in a row and are riding a quality mix of solid pitching, defense and timely hitting to a 17-7 record that included an attention-grabbing 16-6 victory last Friday over extremely talented Waterloo.
“Our pitching has been really solid lately, but overall our defense had let down our pitcher a few times earlier in the season,” Belleville East coach Ryan Wiggs said. “We’ve shored that up a little bit and our success has followed.”
Wiggs should have a much better read on the competitive nature of his team at the end of this week. Along with facing Centralia on Monday, the Lancers have Southwestern Conference road games Tuesday against Alton and Thursday against Belleville West, followed by another road game against Cahokia Conference power Freeburg on Friday.
“We can use that as a benchmark to see where we’re at,” said Wiggs, who also pointed to the return of senior catcher and Missouri State recruit Drew Millas as another factor in the Lancers’ recent surge.
Belleville East won eight of its first nine games once Millas returned from an ankle injury, even though he hasn’t done much catching while trying to rehab his ankle.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence,” Wiggs said. “It definitely helps to have him back, but when he came back it seemed like all the other parts came into place as well.”
Millas (.468, two homers, 14 RBIs) has been one of three big bats in the Lancers’ lineup along with Lindenwood-Belleville recruit and leadoff man Patrick Gaul (.421, six doubles, three triples, 14 RBIs, 25 runs scored) and Jordan Yates (.419, eight doubles, two triples, team-high 18 RBIs).
Wiggs said using Jalen Jones (.268, nine RBIs) more at shortstop has been one adjustment, but generally many of the errors that sometimes submarined innings have lessened. As a result, the confidence level for the Belleville East pitching staff has grown.
Millas has also seen time on the left side of the infield.
“Strikeouts are fine, but they’re really trying to pitch to contact and theyr’e confident our infield is going tp make plays behind them now,” Wiggs said.
Wiggs also credited his seniors like Millas, Gaul, Isaiah King (.339) and others for helping create a competitive but helpful atmosphere around the team.
“That really speaks to our senior leadership,” Wiggs said.
Yates and pitcher Jeff Caringer both came up big in the 16-6 win over Waterloo.
Yates went 3-for-4 with three doubles and three RBIs while Caringer allowed four hits and five earned runs in five innings against one of the area’s more dangerous lineups. Caringer also struck out four.
A 4-3 win Saturday over defending Class 3A state champion Highland again showed Wiggs how much the Lancers’ defense had improved.
“Our execution has gotten a lot better,” Wiggs said. :Highland’s a team that always makes you handle the ball and the first game yesterday we handled it when they put it in play. They tried a couple bunts and a squeeze play and we were prepared and handled it well.”
Cody Freppon (2-2, 1.30 ERA) and Caringer (5-1, 2.42 ERA) have helped anchor the pitching staff along with Evan Lawrence (3-2, 1.77 ERA), Alex Phillips (3-0, 0.71 ERA) and sophomore Ben Cruikshank (3-1, 3.04 ERA).
Central Cougars stopper
The Central Cougars have several talented pitchers, but sophomore Dylan Wilson is emerging as the stopper of the staff.
Wilson (5-0, 0.45 ERA) has posted scoreless outings in four of his five starts. He’s coming off a three-hit shutout over Carlyle, a 5-0 Cahokia Conference win that saw Wilson strike out 11 against a typically effective Indians lineup.
He also struck out eight and allowed eight hits in a 2-0 conference win over Columbia and has 41 strikeouts in 31 innings.
Central’s pitching depth has been a key reason the Cougars were 15-5 heading into Monday. Juniors Jack Strieker and Carter Truong were each 3-1 while junior Trevor Kohrmann (2-0) and senior Greenville College recruit Mitchel Rule (0-3, 5.34 ERA) have also been effective.
There is no hotter hitter in the Cougars’ lineup than junior infielder Kolby Schulte. He began Monday with a .443 average that included 16 doubles and a team-leading 23 RBIs and 20 runs scored.
Nashville Hornets are rolling
Winning during the regular season has rarely been a problem for the Nashville Hornets under highly successful coach Chad Malawy. The Hornets are doing it again this spring, winning 16 straight games after an 0-2 start this season.
“We lost a lot of our offense from last year, our big boppers right in the middle of our order,” Malawy said. “I was hoping our pitching would be strong, but I had a lot of questions about our offense and how we could score runs.
“Fortunately for us that’s translated into some wins because we’ve had good pitching and good defense. We’re still not lighting up the scoreboard by any means.”
It was an auspicious 2016 debut for the Hornets, who were no-hit by Rockford Lutheran in the season opener on Nashville’s newly renovated home field. In the second game of the doubleheader, Rockford Lutheran had a perfect game until Nashville’s Brogan Kemp broke the ice with a sixth-inning single.
“The field just looked beautiful,” Malawy said, though he couldn’t say the same for the Hornets’ opening-day offense.
Malawy said the Hornets found some confidence and momentum by beating Class 3A Freeburg and Herrin, then picked up some more last Saturday with big wins over Central and Teutopolis.
Getting back to the Hornets’ regular-season success, they have posted at least 20 victories under Malawy every year since 2008 and have only two regional titles (2013 and 2015) to show for it.
They failed to get out of the regional with a 31-4 team in 2014 and a 28-8 team in 2012. In fairness, they were competing in extremely tough regionals featuring some of the area’s top 2A teams all piled into the same playoff bracket.
Last season the Hornets reached the sectional championship before losing to Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference rival Du Quoin.
“We would trade those conference titles we’ve won and those 25-win seasons for a sectional plaque or another sectional appearance,” Malawy said. “We’ve been in some loaded regionals that were really tough or run into some buzz-saws in the sectional. That’s just the way the baseball playoffs are around here, they’re tough.”
Area teams would do well to keep an eye on Nashville again with the playoffs approaching.
The Hornets have only two senior starters in pitcher-first baseman Brady Bultman (6-0, 1.22 ERA on the mound) and third baseman Jaris Dalman (.392, 14 RBIs).
“He swings a hot bat,” Malawy said of Dalman, a talented athlete and contributing factor in the success of Nashville’s football, basketball and baseball teams. “He’s a prime example of what we have to have in our school of 380 kids - a three-sport athlete that just completely puts himself into the three sports during each season.
Among the other top hitters are junior catcher Cody Bauza (.350, 14 RBIs), Kemp (.349) and junior Hayden Heggemeier (.322, 10 RBIs).
Kemp, a 6-foot-7 left-hander, is 4-0 with a 1.68 ERA and the Hornets also boast juniors Austin Anderson (2-1, 1.82) and Ryan Brink (3-1, 1.59 ERA). Anderson recently claimed a win over Central while Brink beat Teutopolis in his last start.
Before Monday, Nashville’s team earned-run average was a miniscule 1.51.
Belleville News-Democrat High School Baseball Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Sunday.
Large school rankings (Class 3A-4A)
Also receiving votes: Belleville East (16-7), Freeburg (18-4), Collinsville (11-10), Columbia (10-7), Highland (8-10), Mascoutah (10-9), Civic Memorial (12-10-1)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-2A)
Mater Dei (4)
Also receiving votes: Wesclin (9-7), Dupo (11-4), Valmeyer (13-7-1), Gibault (11-7), Okawville (11-9-1), Red Bud (6-13)