Back on the bump|[02/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 26, 2008

PCA ace Cranfield in command, ready to lead Eagles’ charge

One of the lasting images of Porters Chapel Academy’s decade-long run of baseball success is from the last play of the 2006 season.

There, on one knee, is Matt Cranfield. Then a sophomore, he’s got home plate blocked, the ball in his glove and is just waiting for — almost daring — Huntington’s Hunter Norwood to barrel down the third base line and slide into the tag, into the inevitable out.

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Norwood, of course, had no chance. Just like most of the people who try to take on Cranfield.

Now a senior, Cranfield is the undisputed ace of PCA’s staff. Over four varsity seasons, he’s earned the job. From dominant, season-saving playoff starts as a freshman to a strong relief role last year, Cranfield has tackled everything thrown in front of him. And if the Eagles are to make another run at an MPSA Class A title this season, he’ll be their go-to guy again.

“He makes us want to have the same confidence level as him. If we all have the same mentality as he does, we’d all be better off,” said fellow PCA senior Chris May, also a pitcher. “He takes that (leadership) responsibility pretty good. He’s not afraid of anything. He’ll take up for us in doing his part and get us on track. He wears it good.”

Earlier in his career, Cranfield was overshadowed by a large group of upperclassmen that included Michael Busby, now at Mississippi State, and Hayden Hales, who earned The Vicksburg Post’s basketball player of the year award in 2005 and the football player of the year award in 2006.

All along, Cranfield came up big when the Eagles needed him.

In a second-round playoff series against Benton in 2005, Cranfield held the line with four innings of relief in a wild 10-8 loss in Game 1. Two days later, short on pitching and out of options, PCA coach Randy Wright turned to the freshman again. Cranfield responded with a complete game. He walked none, struck out eight and allowed five hits in a 4-2 win that kept the Eagles alive.

PCA went on to lose Game 3 and the series, but the first chapter of Cranfield’s stellar career had been written.

In 2006, with Busby recovering from elbow surgery, Cranfield developed into the team’s No. 1 starter. He won his first two playoff starts before taking a no-decision and a loss in his next two, then came up big in the clutch again.

In Game 3 of the championship series at Huntington, Cranfield threw 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to nail down PCA’s second state title in four seasons. He also had the big block of home plate for the final out, and went 4-for-4 with a two-run homer.

“He’s a bulldog,” Wright said. “He gets on the mound and fills up the strike zone.”

For a good chunk of last season, however, he couldn’t.

Just after the 2006 season, Cranfield started to feel pain in his right arm. A doctor’s visit revealed ligament damage, and he had Tommy John surgery that summer. He started at third base all season for the Eagles in 2007, but was limited to just 17 innings on the mound. When he did pitch, he was mostly reduced to throwing fastballs.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to go.

By the end of the regular season, Cranfield had regained most of his velocity and was throwing in the upper 80 mph range. He learned a change-up to compensate for the curveball he couldn’t throw because of the injury, and mixed it in with the knuckleball he already could throw for a strike. Not having a true breaking ball taught him how to better locate his pitches, and he became nearly unhittable.

In his career, Cranfield has an 11-4 record with four saves. He’s struck out 134 batters and walked 43 in 103 2/3 innings, and has an ERA of 3.04.

“It just taught me to work harder, I guess. Knowing how to stay ahead in the count because I couldn’t throw the curveball. I learned to throw the knuckleball and change-up more effectively,” Cranfield said.

He can throw the curve again, and Wright called his change-up, “The best I’ve ever seen with one of my pitchers.” The knuckler is just an added bonus.

“He can throw three pitches for strikes at any point in time. He knows how to pitch,” Wright said. “He’s bounced back really well. His velocity is right back where it was, if not harder. I’m optimistic about his future.”

If you go6:30 p.m. – PCA vs. Mount Salus