Bottom of order, bench boosting PCA in postseason

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 8, 2001

[05/08/01] The fact that Porters Chapel Academy is playing Huntington this week for the Central State championship isn’t a surprise the Eagles expected to be here before the season started.

What has been surprising is the group of players who have sparked the team during its stretch run.

The No. 6-9 batters in PCA’s order, as well as a couple of bench players, have played well in the last two weeks of the season and through the Eagles’ first playoff series.

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

The last four batters in the Eagles’ lineup hit .417 (10-for-24) in the two-game sweep of Amite, scored 14 of PCA’s 22 runs and drove in five more.

Seldom-used backup Josh Rush had a pair of key at-bats in each game, and freshman catcher Ryan Hoben played solid defense in place of ailing senior Walter Bliss, who was limited to being a designated hitter because of a sore elbow.

They’ll try to keep it up through the team’s next test, Huntington. The series begins tonight at PCA at 7 and will conclude with games two and, if necessary, three, Friday at Huntington beginning at 4:30 p.m.

“It’s been great. We’ve known all along that those guys are capable of doing what they’ve done and leading this team,” PCA coach Randy Wright said. “If those guys are able to come through for us, that’s a huge help.”

Coming through is something the same spots in the lineup didn’t do in PCA’s last two playoff trips. In six games over two playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000, the group hit a dismal .130, including a nightmarish 2-for-22 (.091) in last season’s two-game sweep by Macon Central.

The difference, the players say, is concentration.

“We’ve been focusing on games a whole lot more,” said Rush, a sophomore who started a seven-run rally in Game 1 against Amite when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, then delivered a pinch-hit RBI single to tie Game 2 and start another rally that propelled the Eagles to the win. “We’ve been having talks before the games, we haven’t been playing around before games, and we’ve been focusing a whole lot better.”

Another reason for the recent hot streak may be an early season slump. PCA, which hit nearly .400 as a team last season, got off to a horrific start this year and is hitting .298 as a team. Several players, including No. 9 batter Dustin Abbott, have raised their averages by 20 or more points in the last two weeks.

“Toward the end of the season, as a team, I think we’re starting to put everything together,” said Abbott, who is hitting just .258, but reached base in six out of seven plate appearances in the Amite series and raised his average 28 points. “We’re peaking at the right time. Last year we came out and hit home run after home run, and this year we’re peaking at playoff time.”

Wright said he believed it took some time for his players to adjust to a new bat, a 33-inch, 30-ounce model. Last season, teams were able to use a lighter 33-inch, 28-ounce model. This week, however, the Eagles will have to adjust to some pitching.

Huntington (22-5) has a pair of aces, Barrett Kiser (9-0) and Trey Mason (10-2), who have combined to throw 145 of the 171 2/3 innings the team has played this season. Opposing teams are hitting just .193 against Kiser and .234 against Mason. Both have faced 274 batters, but Kiser has the lower ERA at 1.91. Mason’s ERA is 3.32.

“We’ve won on pitching and defense all year. Our defense is real solid, especially up the middle,” said Huntington coach Michael McAnally, adding that he wasn’t sure which pitcher would start Game 1.

The starting pitcher for the Eagles tonight, however, is a no-brainer. PCA ace Heath Smith (9-1) has shut down opponents’ bats all season.

In 75 innings, he’s allowed only eight earned runs for a 0.75 ERA, and has struck out 128. He’s walked only 24 and is allowing just over three hits per game. He allowed two runs in eight innings against Amite, struck out 10 and walked three to earn one win and one save.

With the Tuesday-Friday format this week, Wright said Smith would be more than ready for Friday’s doubleheader.

“I’m just thankful we’ve got that son-of-a-gun on our side,” Wright said with a smile. “I know if he was playing for Huntington, I would not want to have to face him.”