By Alvin Richardson
MCHS baseball is off to a great start on the 2017 season under second year head coach Merritt Ainslie. The Bulldogs have posted a strong overall record of 13-4 and are currently 3-0 in region play (through March 17th) after sweeping a doubleheader at Jackson County last week. The Dogs have also posted impressive non-region wins over upper classification programs including Clarke Central (4-3), Newton County (6-5) and Oconee County (7-2).
With the bulk of their region schedule ahead of them and early season success to bolster confidence it’s a good time to get a little perspective from Ainslie and here’s what the head Bulldog had to say in a question and answer session.
The guys had to battle some tough elements during Tuesday’s game vs Jackson County. What did you think about their ability to pitch and play solid defense despite the high-speed winds?
“I don’t think the wind or cold played too much into our guys’ mindset. We talk a lot about things we can control and the things we can’t control. I think the guys are buying into the mindset of being mentally tough and didn’t think much about the weather, just playing ball the right way, making all the routine plays on defense and being aggressive on offense. Our pitchers have confidence that the defense will make plays behind them and are not afraid to throw it in there. “
I think the players made seven errors in the opener, but have only made seven since then. What do you think is the reason they’ve improved and played cleaner defense?
“We’ve just had to find the guys that are going to make the routine plays. We don’t ask our guys to make “wow” plays, just the normal routine ones on a consistent basis. We started the year off playing 6 or 7 different defensive combinations in the field and with a young team like this we really don’t know how a guy is going to perform until the pressure is on in a game situation. Just like all teams we have to find our best combination of guys who can get outs on routine plays consistently. With a young squad you are trying find early season consistency. Consistently doing things the right way and fundamentally sound, that is what should put you in the best position to win the game. “
Your team has six players with averages higher than .300. What makes your team so imposing at the plate?
“We teach the guys how to hit the ball to the opposite field. A high school pitcher usually owns the outside part of the plate, and if we can take that away from him then we feel we can win games. It’s not hard hitting the ball opposite field, but you do have to work on it to be good at it. A coach can’t just say hit the ball the other way and expect his guys to know how to do it consistently if you never practice it. We also focus on having quality at bats every time they step in the box. Most folks like to talk about averages, RBIs, and power numbers but we rarely talk about that with the team. Any player can have discipline and draw a walk, get hit by a pitch, hit behind runners to advance them home or further into scoring position or put down a sacrifice bunt. I think our hitters are finding success because they believe in what we are teaching them. They believe that any player can have quality at bats to help the team. Selfless, team ball where you don’t care who gets the credit.”
It seems your starting pitchers have found success to this point. How impressed have you been by their efforts? Specifically, Ethan Stamps has a bunch of strikeouts. How has he been able to find such consistency?
“We try and teach our pitchers how to use their heads and out think the hitters and not just stand out there and throw. Change their eyesight with different pitch combinations, high/low, inside/outside. Most high school pitchers can’t throw inside consistently because they are scared of hitting batters. We don’t allow our pitchers to think that way. Crandall Stamps, my pitching coach, demands that we use the entire strike zone to get hitters out. If you can hit your spots and change speeds you will be a tough pitcher to face no matter how hard you throw. All of our pitchers have a winning mentality on the mound or they don’t pitch very often for us. They know they won’t always have their best stuff, but they compete and they find ways to get outs. They believe they will beat the hitters and if they don’t they have faith in their defense to make plays behind them.”
You’re a little more than halfway through the season. How are you feeling about the team as a whole right now and what expectations do you have for the remainder of the season?
“I’m pleased with where we are. The wins are important, but I don’t gauge everything off of that. We keep a close eye on what our weaknesses are and try hard to fix areas where we are vulnerable. I try and imagine how I would beat or try and expose our team if I were coaching against us. I think if you can get better every day and keep making progress while gaining confidence then you are in a good spot. I will tell you that our team thinks they will win every time we step on the field. That mindset comes from strong leadership from the players. I expect us to compete every game one pitch at a time until the last out is made. Compete and win each individual play and play with confidence, don’t play not to fail, play knowing you will be successful. That is what I expect out of my players.”