When high school baseball teams have played more than 30 games and progressed through two rounds of the state playoffs, practice is usually focused on just staying sharp.
It’s keep on doing what you've been doing to keep moving through the playoffs.
A pitcher is not going to be searching for a new magical pitch to throw. A hitter is not going to change his swing in hopes of discovering a new power source.
Sure, there’s been talk at practice about what’s ahead in the quarterfinal round series that begin Thursday. For Decatur Heritage it’s hosting Westbrook Christian in Class 2A. For Hartselle, it’s a road trip to Oxford in Class 6A.
There’s probably also been some talk about who might not be there to block Decatur Heritage’s path to the semifinal round. There’s probably been plenty of talk in Hartselle about the team that can’t possibly stop the Tigers this year.
Two years ago, Westbrook Christian came to town and swept Decatur Heritage in two games. Starring in the 11-1 win in Game 1 was sophomore pitcher Samuel Dutton, who had already committed to LSU.
That day Dutton struck out seven in six innings while giving up just four hits. Since then he’s only gotten better. In his last six starts, Dutton threw four no-hitters, a one-hitter and a two-hitter while striking out 69.
Last Friday in Westbrook’s two-game sweep of Cold Springs, Dutton did not play. He was in the dugout wearing shorts and a team jersey.
“He had a little soreness so we gave him the week off,” Westbrook coach Matt Kennedy said. “His status as far as I'm concerned is week-to-week. He's the biggest cheerleader in (the dugout). Hopefully he'll be back.”
Kennedy said the move was made after he and Dutton’s father talked to the pitcher’s doctor.
So will Dutton be a player or cheerleader Thursday? Or was a week off exactly what he needed to be ready for Decatur Heritage?
With Dutton, Westbrook Christian is a favorite to advance to the state championship series in Montgomery. Without him, the Warriors are just another really good team out of the four teams left in the North.
“I’m expecting a really good series with or without him,” Decatur Heritage coach Steve Meek said. “They have more pitchers than Dutton. They’ve won a lot of games that he didn’t pitch.”
In Westbrook’s sweep of Cold Springs last Friday, the Warriors used just two pitchers. Will Noles, a UAH signee, struck out 11 in seven innings while giving up three hits in a 6-1 win. Presley White was the winning pitcher in Game 2. He gave up one hit while striking out 12 and allowing two earned runs in a 7-3 win.
Dutton is also one of Westbrook’s top hitters. In the first-round sweep of Lamar County, he went 5-for-7 with five RBIs. Losing his bat may make an even bigger impact.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the second round of the playoffs was Cullman being eliminated by Chelsea. Cullman was the defending 6A state champion. The team the Bearcats beat in 2019 for the state championship was the Chelsea Hornets.
Cullman had represented the North in the state championship series five times in the last six years. Four times in the last seven years the Bearcats eliminated Hartselle in the playoffs.
With Cullman gone, the North is really open for the remaining four teams of Hartselle, Oxford, Chelsea and Gardendale.
The one key that may separate Hartselle from the other three is pitching. The Tigers have given up just six earned runs in 28 innings.