April 8, 2014

Prep Baseball: Looking for a leader

Top of standings on line for Dalton, Northwest

Dalton High School baseball coach Shane Ramsey only needed one word to sum up what he expects from this week’s three-game series with Sub-region 7B-4A foe and intracounty rival Northwest Whitfield.

“Intensity,” he said. “If you can’t get up for this series, then why are you playing?”

No matter the sport, intensity is likely whenever and wherever Dalton and Northwest meet. The fact that the stakes would be high in this series even without the added pressure of a rivalry makes it that much bigger.

The Catamounts (13-4) and Bruins (12-4) are tied atop the sub-region standings with 8-1 records in 7B-4A play as they head into today’s game at Dalton. Northwest hosts Thursday, with the Cats the home team again on Friday. All three games are scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

Northwest took two of three last week versus Southeast Whitfield. Dalton — which swept LaFayette last week — suffered its lone sub-region loss earlier this season to Ridgeland. The Cats will close the regular season next week against Heritage-Catoosa, while Northwest finishes with LaFayette.

The winner of this week’s Dalton-Northwest series will have a big edge in the race for the top spot in the sub-region, which comes with a guaranteed berth in the state playoffs. The top two teams from each sub-region will play a best-of-three series to determine the Region 7-4A champion, although both teams will advance to state. The No. 2 team from each of 7-4A’s sub-regions will face the No. 3 team from the other to determine the region’s other two state playoff spots.

While Ramsey acknowledged the emotions players will face this week, both he and Bruins coach Todd Middleton know their teams must keep those in check and focus on the overall goal of playing solid baseball.

“We have talked all year about wanting to control our own destiny, and we have done that,” Ramsey said. “Our goal all year has been to win two of three in every series. It is a sub-region game and a sub-region series, and we are trying to treat it as just another series.

“The biggest thing is to be positive and know that our players are going to be jacked up. I have to be a more even-keeled presence because I know the kids will be excited.”

Middleton agreed with Ramsey, who was one of his assistant coaches before taking over at Dalton in 2013.

“We actually practiced a little (Monday) and did a lot of hitting and really didn’t talk about who we are playing,” Middleton said. “I pretty much told them we know who they are and we know who we are playing, and we just have to get the job done. There isn’t anything that needs to be said as far as motivation for this series.”

Both teams have played well in each phase of the game at some point this season, although both coaches would undoubtedly like to see everything working at once more consistently.

The Cats are batting .370, while the Bruins are hitting .302.

Diego Peralta leads the Bruins with a .500 average with a pair of homers and 20 RBIs, while Seth Pierce is batting .409 with 15 RBIs and two homers, and Edwin Hernandez (.317) and Caleb Shiflett (.294) each have a pair of homers.

On the mound, Logan Hilton, Pierce and Andy Whisenant have thrown the majority of pitches for the Bruins, who have a team ERA of 2.38.

“We are as confident as we can be,” Middleton said. “I still don’t think that we have played a great series yet. The pitching has been good most of the year, the defense has been well and we would like to get a little more consistency at the plate. It is a good team we are facing. Dalton is scoring a bunch of runs, and they have grown up a lot since the beginning of the season.”

Dalton counters with a lineup keyed by designated hitter Jase Chastain, who leads the Cats with a .471 average along with a pair of homers, 18 runs and 18 RBIs. Cole Shelton (.423), Maddux Hougton (.423) and Grant Sane (.413) have also been consistent at the plate, with senior first baseman Jake Roberts supplying the power with four homers. Although his team is still young — half of the 24 players on the roster are sophomores and freshmen — Ramsey said his squad has matured in a hurry.

“I am excited. I have been excited all year, but I like how we are holding our focus longer and doing what we have preached,” he said. “We want to make the other team match our intensity, and they are doing a better job of that. The moment isn’t overwhelming us. We are young, but we are just focused on doing our job.”

Ramsey said Jackson Bell will open the series on the mound with Brock Nelson in the second game and Sam Stepp in the third. As a staff, Dalton has an ERA of 3.37 — nearly a run higher than Northwest’s ERA.

Middleton said he still wasn’t sure about his rotation for the series.

“I like our pitching,” Middleton said. “It has been something we have been able to fall back on all year. I kind of like the fact that we haven’t busted out with the bats yet. We will have a couple of guys hot at one time, others at another time. I am still waiting for all of them to come together at one time.”

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