Crusaders put all the pieces together
Like jigsaw puzzles, baseball teams need every piece in place to make a satisfying whole.
For Brother Rice, the 2014 summer baseball season could be described as an unfinished picture. Missing was one very important part: a reliable offense.
While the Crusaders’ pitching and defense have been steady, an often-meager attack relegated Rice to more defeats than it probably deserved. Certainly, no opponent had really teed off on the Crusaders, yet their ledger entering last week was below .500.
No more, however. With a suddenly vibrant offense complementing its other two phases, Rice swept past four foes in a row. None of them got any closer than five runs.
The Crusaders’ most impressive outing came last Tuesday against Class 3A champion Lemont, which suffered a 13-3 defeat to Rice. The latter also took down Evergreen Park (9-0), Andrew (8-1) and Hinsdale Central (7-2).
“It was a very good week for us,” Crusaders coach John McCarthy said. “We finally swung it [well], which was good to see. A lot of guys contributed during the week and we continued to get good pitching.
“They feel a little bit more comfortable with the bats. We had some good at-bats, good situational hitting, and we strung some innings together.”
Sparking Rice (7-4) in most instances were rapid getaways.
“We’d drive in some runs early, get up by one or two [runs], and then put it together,” McCarthy said. “If you let [the other team] stick around, it can have a negative effect [on you].”
A key individual for the Crusaders was sophomore-to-be Ryan King, who has been their leadoff man. King began three of last week’s games with base hits, which set Rice’s attack in motion.
“He did an incredible job getting on base,” McCarthy said. “When you’re able to tack on a first-inning run, it sets the tone, giving you a [better] chance to win.”
Sophomore-to-be Ryan Kutt, who spent most of the spring on the varsity roster, homered against Andrew and was a reliable stick man throughout the week. Jake Ridgway and Mike Schalaskey were also cited by McCarthy as influential persons.
Helping, too, were all-area selections Mike Massey and Andrew Dyke, both of whom have been infrequent members of the summer lineup.
“It eases a lot of tension when you can put Mike Massey and Andrew Dyke in the 3-4 holes,” McCarthy said. “Mike Massey probably had the best week of them all.
“[But] different guys came through all week. We really rolled together and the lineup worked well. It’s starting to come together.”
While he would have preferred a smoother transition from spring to summer, McCarthy wasn’t completely caught off-guard by his club’s early struggles at the plate. With a projected 2015 starting unit that could feature as many as six underclassmen — three sophomores are included in that group — some initial growing pains were to be expected.
“Last summer we knew what the pieces were,” McCarthy said. “It’s a lot more instructive this year, a lot more teaching, but they’re starting to understand this is what we need to do.”
Rice completes its regular schedule with contests against Reavis, Shepard, Oak Forest and Chicago Christian. McCarthy hopes the Crusaders can maintain the positive momentum they’ve built and carry it with them into the postseason tournament.
But even if that doesn’t occur, McCarthy believes Rice’s overall mission of getting questions answered and making across-the-board improvement has been accomplished.
“It’s very, very exciting,” he said, referring to what lies ahead for the Crusaders. “It’s been a very good summer.”
The Bulldogs derived maximum productivity from just one day of work. Playing twice on Wednesday, Richards rolled over Mt. Carmel and Marian Catholic by respective scores of 14-4 and 12-3. A seven-run inning was pivotal in subduing the latter.
Both the Caravan and Spartans have won state championships since 2012 and are considered premier programs. Thus, the Bulldogs’ conquests were noteworthy, although assistant coach Jeff Kortz kept a sense of perspective.
“We’ve not played Marian Catholic in a while, so I don’t know if those were their [regular] guys,” he said. “They threw the ball around a little bit. [And Mt. Carmel coach] Brian [Hurry]’s guys were pretty young. But we got after it and swung it pretty good and I thought we ran the bases really well.”
Indeed they did. Chris Zeschke powered a homer and triple versus the Caravan, and Kortz pegged Brett Thomas, TJ Spyrnal and veteran Noel Castro as others who “hit the heck out of the ball.” As leadoff man, Thomas’ ability to frequently reach base especially pleased Kortz.
Spyrnal, who “sprays the ball around and works counts,” is among the newcomers who have positively impacted Richards. In addition to his hitting, Spyrnal has been effective on the hill — he threw three solid innings against Marian after being one of the hurlers that handcuffed Brother Rice in a 3-2 Bulldogs victory the week before.
Juniors-to-be Ryan Ranken and Josh Chaffin are other youngsters who’ve played significant roles. Ranken and Chaffin both saw mound duty last week as well and were pretty much in control.
“We thought he’d hit the ball coming up [to varsity], but he’s played a decent right field and thrown some innings in relief for us,” Kortz said of Chaffin. “[Ranken is] getting his feet wet and accustomed to things, but I thought he settled down nicely after kind of a rough start [versus the Spartans].
“We didn’t have a ton of arms available, so we were proud of what they were all able to do. The kids got comfortable and they battled.
Richards’ pitchers were backed by a strong defense. Nate Gimza and Nick Fritz both ran down hard-hit fly balls in the outfield, and third baseman Ranken, shortstop Zeschke and catcher Castro also earned kudos for their glove work.
“[Newer] guys are getting chances and they’re seeing what varsity baseball is all about,” Kortz said. “Some guys are seeing they’ve got to get stronger or work on their throwing arm or get more time in the [batting] cage.”
What they’re also getting are some surprise visits.
“I prod them a little bit, but some of those [graduated] guys come back to watch,” Kortz said.
If any ex-Chargers have returned to watch Stagg engage in summer play, they might not recognize their former team, at least from an offensive standpoint.
While the Chargers have been something less than a juggernaut the past few springs, indications are that the circumstances could be somewhat different in the near future. Coach Matt O’Neill isn’t yet declaring Stagg a changed club, but he admitted there’ve been some positive signs.
The Chargers piled up 27 runs in their first three outings of last week, and in wins over Reavis (7-3) and Oak Forest (14-2) they totaled 20 hits. Senior-to-be Brett Stratinsky (three-run homer, double, five RBI versus the Bengals) has been one not-so-surprising contributor, but Stagg has also benefited from input by other, less-expected sources.
Mike Bibbiano, seldom used as a varsity member during the spring, rapped a pair of triples and had two RBI in a 6-6 tie with Reavis and added two more hits against Oak Forest. He augmented the latter with two RBI and three runs.
“I think he’s been a surprise,” O’Neill said. “He had some work to do on his swing, but he figured it out real quickly and made pretty good adjustments.”
O’Neill compares Bibbiano to former Charger Eric Reeder, best known as a setup man for hard-hitting Justin Ringo several seasons ago. Once a dead-pull hitter, Reeder learned to use all parts of the field and left the program as its all-time leader in doubles.
“Very few pitchers in high school are able to throw the ball with conviction inside,” O’Neill said. “They worry about hitting guys with pitches or having guys homer, so the more you can cover the outside of the plate the better.”
Bibbiano was listed as an infielder in the spring, but O’Neill says he’s being tried in the outfield to see if he can fill one of the openings created by graduation. A few younger players who’ve also caught O’Neill’s eye are Mike Crosby (3-for-3 with a double and three runs in the victory over Reavis), Joe Van Nieuwenhuys (two hits, two runs in that same contest) and Nick Worst, who reminds O’Neill of Max Strus at a similar stage of development.
Stagg (5-3-1) rallied in both encounters with the Rams, climbing out of a 4-0 hole in the game that ended in a deadlock. The Chargers racked up six extra-base hits in all and Gus Martinez (two), Stratinsky and Chris Yaros all delivered RBI with theirs.
A four-run sixth inning was the key to their conquest of Reavis. Gary Kopca knocked in two of the markers with a double and he added a 3-for-3 effort later in the week opposite Oak Lawn, a contest the Spartans won 11-5.
“I always take it for what it’s worth,” O’Neill said, referring to Stagg’s improved potency. “I maybe put more stock in the numbers when we first got here [as coaches]. I go back and forth a little bit [in that regard], but it’s more about getting kids playing time and finding out who they are.
“We talk about the biggest difference in any sport from sophomore to junior year is speed. We work on stuff [to prepare for that] and there’s some fluidity in what we’re trying to do.”
O’Neill said more athletes are becoming available to him as the summer season winds down and the Chargers should pretty much be operating at full strength when the playoffs begin next week.
The Astros’ schedule was light last week, partially by design but also because a game scheduled for last Tuesday was postponed by wet grounds.
Before Monday’s rain hit, Shepard tangled with Sandburg and suffered an 8-1 setback. While the loss appears rather lopsided, Astros coach Frank DiFoggio found something to like: pitcher Ricky Mundo.
The son of former Shepard girls’ and Mother McAuley basketball coach Rick Mundo pitched four innings against the Eagles and, except for a three-run homer he surrendered, did much to please his skipper.
“I think pitching’s going to be a real strong point and Rick’s someone we’re really going to need next year,” DiFoggio said. “He’s a tough kid on the mound and we can use him in multiple ways.”
That includes as a third baseman, first baseman or catcher, all spots Mundo has occupied at some point this summer. However, it’s his progress as a hurler that most excites DiFoggio.
“Rick’s development has been huge,” DiFoggio said. “We want him to learn how to pitch backwards [when the count favors the batter], where he’s varying looks, holding runners and learning to spot it. If you get up 0-2 or 1-2, then bring the heat.”
The Astros’ lone breakthrough against Sandburg came in the fifth, when Kevin Carmody and Adam Gregory stroked back-to-back doubles. Noteworthy about the latter’s two-bagger was the fact he hit it with a wood bat.
“He’s learning how to use the barrel [better],” DiFoggio said of Gregory.
DiFoggio said Shepard “played them pretty tough,” an assessment proved by the three-run differential that separated the squads through the first four frames. But DiFoggio once again made clear he is not attaching any deep meaning to the Astros’ summertime record.
“I have my horses — [Bobby] Peterka, [Brett] Smith, [Eric] Horbach and Gregory — and now I’ve got to find my supporting cast,” DiFoggio said. “That’s what summer’s all about and some kids are really making progress.”