From the Press Box (Video): How to make the final out

Recapping a final at-bat, rehashing some numerical oddities from the summer seasons and a word or two on the state-bound Jayettes.

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Opinion and Insight

George Brett was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Elected into the Hall of Fame with 98.2% of the vote in 1999 (his first year eligible), Brett finished his career with 3,154 hits.

Brett retired after the 1993 season. In his final at-bat he singled up the middle, later scoring on a home run from Gary Gaetti in the last game played at Arlington Stadium, then the home of the Texas Rangers.



I mention Brett because of what he said in an interview shortly before his final game. He was asked if he hoped he would hit a home run in his last at-bat.

“No,” Brett said. “What I hope is that I hit a two-hopper to the second baseman and hustle down the line and get thrown out by half-a-step. That is how I want to be remembered, as a guy who played hard and gave all he had every time.”

I thought of Brett Friday when Perry senior Kade VanKirk grounded out to second base in his last act as a high school athlete. VanKirk hustled down the line and nearly beat out the play.

During the season I was able to spend many innings in, and around, the Bluejay dugout, and VanKirk was always positive, always urging his teammates on.

He was a go-all-out football player and wrestler for the Bluejays as well, and I really wanted to see his final at-bat be a sharp single back up the middle or a double in the gap, but after he bounced out to second, I realized it was a perfect ending. A scrapper went out scrapping.

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During the course of this baseball season I witnessed several unusual plays and situations, some I do not recall having seen in 26 summers.

One day in particular stands out: June 9. Woodward-Granger was playing host Woodward Academy in a WCC doubleheader at Knight Field.

The facility is a throwback. An old-style wooden scoreboard is still in use, and, similar to some of the older ballparks in the majors, has enormous dimensions. It is something like 325 feet down the right field line but it a whopping 354 to left and an impressive 402 to dead center.

Race Brant begins to close the gap on Bryce Achenbach as he nears second base for what would become the first of his consecutive inside-the-park home runs Thursday at the Woodward Academy.
Race Brant begins to close the gap on Bryce Achenbach as he nears second base for what would become the first of his consecutive inside-the-park home runs at the Woodward Academy June 8.

Even with aluminum bats so advanced the ball explodes on contact, the spacious dimensions at the academy make it unlikely someone is going to poke one out. It does, however, invite hard-hit line drives in the gaps, and, given even of a whack and with a speedy enough runner, inside-the-park home runs are not so rare.

So up steps W-G senior Race Brant, who drills a shot into the left-center gap for an inside-the-park homer. Three batters later Cole Theisen — not nearly as fleet of foot as Brant — sends a drive the outfielder lunges for and misses, allowing Theisen to also hit an inside-the-park dinger. So there you have it: two ITP HRs in the span of four batters on the same team. But wait, there is more …

Brant came up the next inning and hit another ITP, doing so in consecutive at-bats. My score book, and that of both coaches, agreed that all three ITPs were legit — no errors, etc.

W-G sophomore Cole Theisen crushes the ball into the gap in left-center for an inside-the-park home run which also drove in Brady Aunspach (5).
W-G sophomore Cole Theisen crushes the ball into the gap in left-center for an inside-the-park home run which also drove in Brady Aunspach (5).

So how rare is that if this had been in the majors? Well, the last time two teammates hit ITP shots in the same inning came August 27, 1977, when Texas’ Toby Harrah and Bump “What you talkin’ about?” Willis accomplished the feat at Yankee Stadium. The last time a player went ITP in consecutive at-bats? October 4, 1986, when Twins infielder Greg Gagne did so off White Sox starter Floyd “Slide down the” Bannister.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the occurrences of ITPs has dropped dramatically since the pre-World War II era and now occurs (based on numbers from 1970-2014) in 1-of-158 home runs.

Although it did not happen in the W-G game in question, I thought it interesting enough to note that only once in MLB history has a player hit a walk-off inside-the-park grand slam. That player? The incredible Roberto Clemente, whose four-bagger at Forbes Field on July 25, 1956 led the Pirates to a 9-8 win over the Cubs.
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Johanna Diw, sophomore shortstop for the Perry Jayettes, achieved the ridiculously unlikely July 7.

With Perry hosting Greene County, Diw hit for a “natural” cycle: A single, double, triple and home run, in the order, in the same game. To shrink the odds even further, her home run was a grand slam.

Johanna Diw beams as she is greeted by teammates Brooke Huntington (2), Maddy Jans (right) and Emma Olejniczak (right, rear) after driving all in with a grand slam in the sixth inning against Greene County Thursday.
Johanna Diw beams as she is greeted by teammates Brooke Huntington (2), Maddy Jans (right) and Emma Olejniczak (right, rear) after driving all in with a grand slam against Greene County July 7.

I have clear memories of seeing a cycle hit exactly twice in all the prep baseball I have covered. I do not recall ever having seen it done in softball, and I know I have never seen a natural cycle, never mind one that featured a grand slam.

Elias says only 309 cycles have been produced in MLB since 1882. Only 14 times has a player hit a “natural” cycle, and only six times has a player hit a “reverse natural” — all four in descending order, although Cleveland’s Rajai Davis just did so a few weeks ago when he hit for a “reverse natural” July 2 against Toronto.

New York Yankee Tony Lazzeri, back in 1932, is the only player in MLB history to hit a single, double, triple and then a grand slam.

Granted, Iowa high school girls softball is not the major leagues, and the odds are astronomically higher for the feat to be accomplished by a prep girl, but I would bet it has never been done before. I contacted five sportswriter friends of mine around Iowa, and a wise old sage in Illinois with 40 years of experience, and all concurred in having never heard of the feat being accomplished.

Great job, Jo! Glad I got to see it.
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Speaking of the Jayettes, they will face No. 6 Oskaloosa in the Class 4A Quarterfinals Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Harlan Rogers Park in Fort Dodge.

Considering that Perry went to No. 7 Norwalk and slapped the Warriors around July 9 before ending three-time state champion DC-G’s five-year run at state, I do not foresee the Jayettes being intimidated by anyone.

To be a team that is considered a “traditional power” a la DC-G, or Carlisle, or Winterset, etc. you have to start somewhere. That, of course, is the rub — to turn that final corner and start believing in yourself and your teammates. If you do not, certainly the competition will not.

The 2016 Perry Jayettes are, front from left: Jayden Whitney, Brooke Huntington, Maddie West, Victoria Hegstrom, Sid Vancil, Alysaa Kruger and Adriana Eastman. Back, from left: Maddy Jans, Emma Olejniczak, head coach Tina Kenney, assistant coach Ashley Fricke, assistant coach Allisa Bahney, Jo Diw, Rachel Kinney, T.J. Sheehy and Gabby West.
The 2016 Perry Jayettes are, front from left: Jayden Whitney, Brooke Huntington, Maddie West, Victoria Hegstrom, Sid Vancil, Alysaa Kruger and Adriana Eastman. Back, from left: Maddy Jans, Emma Olejniczak, head coach Tina Kenney, assistant coach Ashley Fricke, assistant coach Allisa Bahney, Jo Diw, Rachel Kinney, T.J. Sheehy and Gabby West.

Yes, Perry went 0-8 against ADM, Carlisle and Winterset. While only Carlisle advanced to state from that trio, all three were ranked no lower than fourth when Perry faced them. Boone — who is also in Fort Dodge — was ranked both times they topped Perry as well. One break here or there and half of those eight games are Perry wins, and I bet the opposition knows it, too.

Now the Jayettes are on the big stage. Might they be beaten three times and finish eighth? It is a possibility. It is also a possibility that they win Tuesday, win Thursday and then — whowouldathunkit? — find themselves playing for the title Friday. Do not bet against it.

The most unlikely scenario is not a title shot; it is, in my mind, an implosion. This team simply does not have it in their make-up to fold up and slink away. If they did, they would not be playing Tuesday.

One of the players told me the day before the DC-G game that she was very nervous. Why? I asked. Because of what was going to be at stake the next day was the reply.

So I told her what I would say to the whole team: Why be nervous? It is not like you are being asked to diagram some graduate-level calculus equation. This is softball. You know how to play it, like playing it, and are good at it. Go have fun, and all of us will have fun watching you.

 

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