Cats see growth in crunch time, behind the scenes

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — Perhaps a millisecond after it left his bat, Spencer Otto knew the thing was gone.

“Put one inside, kind of high and I just turned on it and got all of it,” he said.

Yet as predictable as the destination of Otto’s second-inning solo bomb was Friday evening, so much else with Jasper’s baseball squad hasn’t traveled on such an anticipated course.

Some of the unforeseen detours have been a bit irksome for Wildcat coach Terry Gobert. Occasionally susceptible defense, a proneness to faulty damage control and a cast of vapid faces in the dugout. However, other deviations from the expected, as evidenced in Jasper’s 3-2 slide past Class 4A preseason No. 1 Jeffersonville at Ruxer Field, have ushered in some optimism for a club still crafting its identity.

Otto
Keusch


For starters, there’s Otto. The preseason blueprint had the senior penciled in as one of the Cats’ top hurlers. But so far, he’s only made one appearance mainly because of a tender arm and has accepted a role hovering primarily between first base and the designated hitter position. But with his two homers and third-highest batting average on the team (.372), Otto has pinpointed his part.

“I’m seeing it well, I’m picking everything up,” said Otto, who drove in the Cats’ second run on an RBI single in the third inning. “It’s just great knowing that my team can count on me in situations like that.”

“How big is Otto’s home run?” Gobert asked rhetorically. “He’s going through a lot. We were counting on him being one of our top pitchers, and it’s got to be frustrating (designated hitting). But I watched him tonight … and he was grabbing guys and starting to take the reins.”

Others have followed.

After catcher Tate Blessinger’s introduction to the lineup Thursday night, second baseman Zach Keusch took his turn filling in Friday. When Brandon Bayer exited the ballgame after three innings — still hindered after being cleated in the ankle straddling second base on a steal attempt in the first — Keusch came through with two walks against Red Devil starter Chandler Dale, who fanned 10 Wildcats. And after Craig Shepherd scooted Keusch along to third with a gap hit to left center in the bottom of the seventh, Keusch scurried home on a one-out safety squeeze bunt by Ben Moore, sliding in just under the tag to give Jasper the walk-off win.

“You’ve got to be ready,” Keusch said of his impact off the bench. “Something happens, you’ve got to be ready to go and make plays and do your job.”

Once on his feet after the head-first slide, Keusch handled the swarm of teammates like a veteran as well, keeping his head down and barrelling through the throngs of hands batting his helmet. Meanwhile, a little ways past first base, Gavin Lorey enveloped Shepherd with a mid-air chest bump.

Seeing Lorey with that attitude? That’s big by Gobert’s appraisal.

Lorey


Lorey was eyed early on as the squad’s backup catcher. But when usual starter Scott Stallwood was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms earlier this week, Blessinger got the nod behind the plate instead. Blessinger has played well. But what caught Gobert’s eye just as much has been Lorey’s attitude through the change.

The junior is “one of the guys that doesn’t get mentioned,” Gobert said of Lorey. “He was considered for that (catcher) spot. And instead of pouting, he’s working with Tate. We notice things like that in this program.”

Friday’s display also shed light on a developing mettle for the Cats defensively as well. The three errors committed? Still not kosher. “A double play in our program should be routine,” Gobert stressed, alluding to a botched grounder in the sixth inning that would’ve eliminated Jeff’s eventual tying run. But in the same thought, the mistakes weren’t compounded by further blunders, and there’s promise in that for a team that’s yielded 15 unearned runs this season.

“I do like the fact that: one and one,” Gobert said in reference to the single runs scored by Jeff in the fourth and sixth innings. “We kept it at one (run). And it’s been a problem all year. We get down. We made some tough pitches, and even if they’re routine, they’re not an easy play with runners on to get out of innings.”

The Wildcats (12-5) escaped the fifth, sixth and seventh innings with two Red Devil runners on base.

And, as Gobert and Otto agreed, much of the credit has to be directed at Shepherd.

“The kid is a stud,” Otto said of Shepherd, who hurled 101 pitches in the complete-game five hitter.

Working with Blessinger made the performance all the more impressive in Gobert’s assessment, considering the duo had never teamed at the varsity level before. Shepherd utilized his pitches well, particular his changeup, his coach felt, which even yielded the chance for Evan Aders to come up with a nifty diving grab in shallow right field in the second inning.

And even after a wicked curveball and would-have-been-third-out strike out slipped past Blessinger in the top of the sixth inning, allowing Louisville recruit Drew Ellis to bolt home and bring Jeff square with Jasper at 2-all, the sophomore catcher “showed some guts back there staying with it,” Gobert lauded.

“I’m proud of the way we battled. That’s the highlight of the night is that we competed.”

The revived spirit was seen in the Cats’ resilience. It was seen in a dugout bunch ready to hurdle the railing when it appeared as if the Cats had turned a 5-4-3 double play to retire the Red Devils in the seventh. And undoubtedly, the verve was exhibited in the postgame party.

“Close games always bring that out in guys and Jeff is a good team,” Keusch said, “so we just had to get it done.”

“We showed some good strides and the dugout was up all night and it was just fun to be around,” Otto added. “We’re a young team, so everyone’s kind of new to it. But we’ve just got to come excited every day to play the game.”

Contact Joe Jasinski




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