By Dana Harding
Springfield, Mo. — After a whirlwind stretch of five road games in four days, Hillcrest (2-4) finally got a chance to play at home Friday in the Red and Blue Classic’s opening round against Carthage (2-4).
The Hornets didn’t waste the opportunity, either, downing the visiting Tigers 9-1 thanks to a late-inning offensive surge and a solid performance from junior pitcher Brett Letterman.
Letterman’s solid outing included a pair of hits, no walks and a single run over six and one-third innings. The crafty right-hander worked ahead in the count most of the afternoon and kept the Carthage bats silent with a mixture of speeds and location.
“I was alternating from fastball to offspeed and just mixing it up a lot,” Letterman said. “That seemed to be working really well early on. We figured out what was working in the first inning, and that kind of carried on to the second and third innings … just see what they’re swinging at and throw strikes.”
Letterman could have remained in the game; however, head coach Ryan Schaffitzel opted to pull his 6’3” hurler after 73 pitches due to new MSHSAA guidelines.
While Letterman was well under the 105-pitch maximum, another batter would have pushed him beyond the 75-pitch threshold and required an extra day’s rest.
The new guidelines require teams to rely on depth and coaches to crunch numbers like never before. Along with coaching staffs throughout the state, Schaffitzel and pitching coach Byron Hagler work through the weekly challenges.
“Each Monday, Coach Hagler and I sit down and try to plan out some sort of attack for the week,” Schaffitzel said. “Who can do what, how many pitches and then you throw in the weather. It definitely changes everything you do.”
Players are starting to realize the impact those pitch counts can have on strategy, both in the long- and short-term. It’s one thing to understand strategy, though. It’s quite another to stare it down in the midst of a two-hit shutout.
“[Letterman] understands,” Schaffitzel said. “We have an important conference game on Tuesday against Waynesville that’s also a district game. He’s not going to start, but we want him to be able to relieve. If he throws three more pitches, that knocks him out for Tuesday. It takes a little bit of maturity from the guy on the mound, because I know he wanted to finish, we wanted him to finish and if it wasn’t for a pitch count, he would have finished.”
Despite the lopsided final score, the game had all the makings of a classic pitching duel through the early innings.
Carthage starter Trason Vogt matched Letterman pitch-for-pitch early on, mixing velocity, offspeed and breaking balls. The sophomore left-hander showed signs of big-game promise with seven strikeouts, churning through hitters at times.
Hillcrest managed to jump on the board first in the third, when a Kamron Grant single into right center scored Brant Schaffitzel from second.
With only a single run on the board, Vogt gathered himself for the final out and then worked a scoreless fourth to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
In the fifth; however, control issues and a climbing pitch count began to plague the hard-throwing lefty.
After giving up a lead-off single to Haden Parton, Vogt struck back-to-back hitters to load the bases.
With Vogt sitting at 90 pitches, Carthage head coach Mike Godfrey was forced to make a switch on the mound.
While MSHSAA guidelines allow a maximum 105 pitches for juniors and seniors, underclassmen are limited to only 95 pitches.
Despite the loss, Godfrey was pleased with Vogt’s performance.
“Trason threw the ball really well, and it’s hard to keep competing as a young player when you don’t have any runs on the scoreboard,” Godfrey said. “Really, they didn’t hit him hard. We made some mistakes and compounded some things by not blocking some balls and allowing some things to happen that, defensively, opened the door for them a little bit. When we had to pull him, they got the bats rolling the last couple innings.”
Inheriting a one-out, bases-loaded jam, Carthage reliever Kaden Carter was unable to halt the damage, as Hillcrest plated three runs in the inning to take a 4-0 lead.
Parton scored from third on a Dustin Irvine sacrifice fly, Kamron Grant scored from third on a passed ball and Letterman helped his own cause by driving in Devin McCullough.
In the sixth, the Hillcrest onslaught continued with five more runs to give the Hornets a commanding 9-0 lead heading into the final frame.
Carthage, meanwhile, continued to have difficulties figuring out the Letterman puzzle. When the sixth-inning pitch count finally retired Hillcrest’s starter with a lone runner aboard and one out, the Tiger bats responded.
After Colton Smith reached on a single off Letterman, Dylan Lee’s base hit off Hillcrest reliever Grant brought the Tigers’ second baseman home for the afternoon’s lone run.
Godfrey credited Letterman’s effectiveness as a deciding factor in the loss.
“[Letterman] mixed his offspeed in pretty well, and we didn’t adjust to it,” Godfrey said. “He threw strike after strike after strike, and when you do that at this level and command your breaking ball and changeup like he was doing, you’ll be effective. We’re not swinging the bats well right now, and that just makes him that much tougher against us.”