Panthers continue to soar
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – They’re making a difficult game look awfully easy.
With Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of visiting Hampden-Sydney (Va.), LaGrange College extended its winning streak to 12 games while improving to 26-2.
The Panthers went 30-13 last season, and most of the key players from that team returned this year, including senior shortstop Tavin Thompson, a former Callaway Cavalier who is in his second season at LaGrange College.
“Coming into the year, we thought we had all the pieces, and everything has come together,” Thompson said. “We knew coming in we had a good lineup, and we’re deep, and our pitching staff is really good. We didn’t have a lot of seniors we lost, so that was big for us coming in. But you can’t expect to go 26-2. That’s really crazy.”
It’s not like the Panthers are just squeaking by, either, as they’ve outscored their opponents 240-97 this season.
LaGrange College has an unforgiving lineup that has no weak spots, as well as a pitching staff that has been putting the handcuffs on opposing offenses.
It is a complete team, and the remarkable record is a testament to that.
“Going into the season, we knew we had a good team,” said LaGrange College third baseman Blake Butcher, who hit a three-run home run in Game 2 on Saturday. “We wanted to start off like this. It’s awesome to be a part of.”
The groundwork for this year’s success was laid last year when the Panthers took off late in the season and won 14 straight games.
While the 2016 team had its struggles in the first half of the season, this team has been rolling since Day 1.
“It took us a little bit to mesh (last season),” Kelton said. “Once we did, we caught fire. The guys figured out what we need to do day in and day out to win. It’s the mentality of coming out every day and figuring out a way to win. I know that can sound easy saying it, but that’s really what the guys are doing.”
Kelton added that everyone has bought into the team-first mindset.
“We talk all the time about that unselfish team mentality,” he said. “Everything we do, we’re constantly talking about all phases of the game, and being unselfish, and having a team mindset. And this is a group that’s bought into it.”
As successful as last season’s team was, there was plenty of disappointment when the Panthers didn’t receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
The Panthers, who lost in the USA South tournament to Huntingdon, felt they’d done enough to earn that bid, but they were denied.
“Last year not getting that at-large bid was huge,” Butcher said. “We were all kind of expecting it. And then not to get it was downer for all of us. But that just made us want to come back this year and make sure we got it no matter what, so that’s what we’re out here to do.”
While the Panthers are putting up gaudy numbers with their relentless lineup, Thompson said the team’s success isn’t based just on the ability to bludgeon the baseball.
“That’s what we take pride in is doing the small stuff right, making the routine plays,” Thompson said. “We just try to stay within ourselves and do things the right way.”
As for that lineup, it is potent.
The Panthers have a team batting average of .340, and they average 8.5 runs per game.
“They’re very disciplined,” Kelton said. “They all go up there with a good solid approach. And we have the ability throughout our entire lineup to really hit the gaps, and blow open an inning. Which is nice.”
Of the everyday players, seven of them are hitting .300 or better, and that includes Casey Bell, who is hitting .400 with three home runs and 35 RBIs.
Butcher, the current USA South player of the week, is hitting .382 with five home runs and 32 RBIs, and Thompson is hitting .381 with two home runs and 24 RBIs, and he leads the team with 35 runs scored.
James Poropatic, who hit his first home run of the season on Saturday, is hitting .378 with 25 RBIs, and Blane Swift is hitting .369 and he has three home runs and 15 RBIs.
Billy Peatross, a sophomore who has been getting significant playing time on a veteran team, is hitting .353 with 13 RBIs, and Joe Pradat is hitting .325 with 11 RBIs, and he and Thompson lead the team with 20 walks apiece.
Cain Sauls has a pair of home runs and he has driven in 23 runs, and catcher Chad Pigg has two home runs with 14 RBIs.
While the high-flying offense is clearly a big key to the Panthers’ success, the pitchers have done their part as well.
Ryan Broaderick, who threw a shutout in Friday’s 6-0 win, is 5-0 with a 2.20 earned run average, and Andrew Weekley is 5-1 with a 2.83 ERA.
Freshman Richie Post got the start in Saturday’s second game, and he is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA, and Zach English is 3-0 in his five starts.
Jonathan Fleckenstein, who was the winning pitcher in the series finale against Hampden-Sydney, has been terrific out of the bullpen with a 5-1 record and a 2.30 ERA.
Austin Perez has a 0.77 ERA in his seven appearances, and Austin Brown is 3-0 with a 2.49 ERA out of the bullpen.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job,” Kelton said. “Our starters have done a great job, and our bullpen has been huge this year. They’ve picked us up in some games. They’ve had to pitch a lot of innings.”
As for the weekend series, Hampden-Sydney, which made the trip from Virginia to take on LaGrange College, was over-matched.
After LaGrange College won Friday’s first game 6-0, it finished off the sweep on Sunday by beating Hampden-Sydney 5-2 and 9-3.
In Saturday’s first game, it was tied 2-2 when LaGrange College pushed three runs across in the bottom of the eighth inning to take the lead, and Fleckenstein got the win with 2 1/3 innings of shutout ball.
Weekley got the start for the Panthers and he threw 6 2/3 innings, and he gave up two runs, although they were both unearned.
Peatross had a two-run single for the Panthers in the first inning, and they were held scoreless until they broke through in the eighth inning.
Swift led off with a triple and scored on a wild pitch, and after Pigg walked and moved to second on a Patrick sacrifice bunt, Pradat brought him in with an RBI single.
Poropatic capped the scoring with an RBI double.
Armed with a three-run lead, Fleckenstein set Hampden-Sydney down in order in the top of the ninth, and the Panthers had the win.
In the second game, there was no suspense.
Butcher’s three-run home run gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead in the first inning, and they never looked back on the way to the 9-3 win.
That was one of three home runs the Panthers banged out in the game.
In the fourth inning, Poropatic hit a solo home run, and Swift had a two-run blast in the sixth inning.
Peatross had three hits and three RBIs, and Bell had four hits with three runs scored.
Butcher had two hits, and he had three runs scored to go along with his three RBIs.
Post was the starting pitcher for the Panthers, and he was sharp, throwing five scoreless innings.
Brown pitched the sixth inning, and Perez threw three scoreless innings to finish it.
LaGrange College will look to avenge one of its two losses when it visits Birmingham Southern on Tuesday before returning to USA South play with a three-game series at Methodist beginning on Friday.
The Panthers have eight more regular-season games to play before they host the USA South tournament.
“We want to go into this (conference) tournament and blow through it and go to regionals and make some noise,” Butcher said. “Our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series and win that. We’ve got the team to do it. We’ve just got to keep taking it one step at a time.”