Cat’s newfound pop powers first winApril 10, 2014
By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer
JASPER — As Craig Shepherd walked from the mound to the dugout after the Jasper baseball team’s tilt against visiting Mount Carmel, coach Terry Gobert, with his second basemen in clear earshot, put on an incredulous look and asked why anyone would want to talk to a player who can’t hit.
“Shepherd? He can’t hit,” Gobert joked.
Gobert, of course, was anything but serious, but after Shepherd’s performance at the plate Wednesday evening — 3-for-3 with a home run and five RBIs — there’s no harm in the sophomore receiving a little bit of razzing. His three-run belt in the second inning kicked off the Wildcats’ gradual takeover of their Big Eight Conference opponent as Jasper slowly pulled away until closing the game in the sixth inning with a 12-0 shutout.
Shepherd’s bat was one of the many promising performances for the Class 3A No. 2 Cats (1-2, 1-0) in their first win of the season, but even more impressive considering where he had been a year ago.
As a freshman, Shepherd received time at shortstop, but often was pinch-hit for because, as Gobert said, “he was just overmatched physically.”
This season, he’s snared the starting job at second base and has apparently added some power to his repertoire.
In the bottom of the second inning against the Golden Aces (1-3, 0-1) with the game still scoreless, Shepherd stepped into the box with runners on second and third. Down 0-2 in the count, Mount Carmel pitcher Devan Rich sent him a fastball inside and Shepherd pasted it over the left-field wall — the Cats’ first home run of the season and Shepherd’s first varsity blast.
“I just geared down and sat back and relaxed and hit it solid,” Shepherd said.
Pitcher’s won’t sweat about Shepherd’s size, but Gobert emphasized how the sophomore is “a baseball guy and he should be (able to pull some balls). He’s played a lot of baseball and the kid has (played travel ball) a long time and it’s just a matter of he was wanting to hit the ball 600 feet at the beginning of the year.”
The key has been shortening a long, “loopy” swing, according to Gobert. His time with the team’s coaches has seemed to work. Gobert referenced the double Shepherd slammed to deep center in Tuesday’s game against Bloomington South, and the power was on display Wednesday in the fifth inning when he knocked in two more runs on a line-drive double to left for a 9-0 Jasper lead.
“(It’s) just more about contact, hitting the ball solid more than anything. Just trying to relax,” Shepherd explained.
Shepherd’s offensive explosion came on a night when the entire Jasper roster was smashing balls out of the infield. Four Wildcats — Shepherd, Scott Stallwood, Ben Moore and Evan Aders — recorded doubles, with two from Aders, a freshman. Senior Spencer Otto belted another two-run homer in the sixth — again over the left-field fence — for a 12-0 lead, closing out the ballgame.
“We judge our hitting by extra-base hits and we had some legit gap doubles, we had some home runs, but we did a better job of driving baseballs and Moore threw strikes. That’s a great start for your defense,” Gobert said, referencing Moore, who gave up one hit with six strikeouts in his first start this season.
And after the mental lapses that plagued Jasper in its pair of one-run losses, Gobert finally observed his team making the easy decisions he’s asked for. Austin Alles relieved Moore in the sixth inning and struck out the first batter swinging, but Mount Carmel had one man in scoring position when Golden Aces shortstop Thomas Allen reached first on an error and then second after Ian Hipsher grounded out to the pitcher.
It was that out — an easy toss from Alles to Aders at first base — that demonstrated the progress the Cats have made in just two games.
“We got the out instead of trying to force the double play with the ball to Alles. Last night we would have thrown that ball to center field,” Gobert said.
And the net result was one of the Cats’ best defensive plays of the night. Mount Carmel’s Pete Smith hit a single to shallow left that seemed likely to score the runner from second, but Moore, now in left field, scooped up the ball on the run and fired it to cutoff man Cal Krueger at third base, who then fired it home to Stallwood, who tagged out the Golden Aces’ only chance for a run.
There were the occasional blunders: Two baserunning goofs resulted in outs that “can knock you out of the tournament,” Gobert said.
“We don’t worry about, ”˜Hey, we beat Mount Carmel 12-0.’ When I look up (at the scoreboard) and I see zero scores on the errors for Jasper ... I’ll be closer to happy,” Gobert added.
Ultimately, maybe the biggest breakthrough for the Cats, though, was adding one in the win column — a sign that they’ve put some of their early-season misfortunes behind them.
“It’s a huge confidence booster,” Otto said. “We were kind of down going out 0-2, but now we got this one and I think we kind of got the gears going.”
Contact Joseph Fanelli
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