Hillsboro Baseball Tops .500 In Rain Soaked Season

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Despite their youth the 2019 baseball Hillsboro Toppers topped the .500 mark, both for the regular season (12-11) and the South Central Conference (5-4) for the first time since 2011 when they finished 17-7 (The 2017 team was an even .500 at 15-15).

Weather-wise, it was a bad spring, with mid-March type weather lingering well into May. Rain forced scheduled changes, pitching rotation disruptions, and ultimately playing fewer games than scheduled. Cold weather contributed to sore arms and perhaps batting problem woes; it's easier to hit when the weather is warm.

Depth was a positive for Hillsboro; 18 players appeared in at least one game, and nine different pitchers claimed at least one varsity win. Eleven made an appearance on the mound; here's hoping experience gained is valuable next spring as only two of the 11 were seniors.

There were individual highlights. Both Griffin King (.459) and Jordan Gregg (.406) batted above .400. King put together a seven game hitting streak early in the season (Games 2 through 8) and a 14 game streak (Games 10 through 23) to end the season. Gregg, who led his team with 21 RBIs from the clean-up slot, had five RBIs in Effingham against St. Anthony.

Landon Carroll (.315) and Jace Tuetken (.222) were the hard luck hitters, too often hitting the ball hard near a defender who would make a hit-robbing play. That happened to Brock Bellaver in the regional semifinal as well. Carroll still managed to move runners over when the situation called for it while scoring 23 runs and driving in ten.

Kaden Lemon filled lead-off man duties well, drawing 12 walks, allowing himself to be hit by a pitch seven times, and stealing 17 bases.

Nic Ondrey raised his batting average from .152 just after the county tournament to .304 by season's end; his defense at third improved as the season went along, too, at one point prompting an opposing head coach stationed in the third base coaching box to implore his players to "...hit it at someone else, why doncha?"

King, Ondrey, Carroll, and Gregg often helped the pitching staff with their infield play. Once, at Taylorville, the entire defense stank, but generally the team performed well as a unit.

The perceived weaknesses offensively were 1) the lack of a big bopper, and 2) an inability to catch the magic of stringing hits together consistently. As a team Hillsboro had four triples (three by King) and three home runs (one each by Gregg, King, and Ondrey). No matter the level of baseball, a player who consistently hits the ball over the fence inspires confidence in his teammates and fear in the opposition. Teams who win by playing small ball have to produce bunches of consecutive hits. (The Toppers did that once, in the seventh inning against South Central – that'll be the inning they discuss when they see each other in 2050.)

Pitching-wise, Carroll was called upon to start the tougher conference games; while that's a compliment, it often means a high ERA. He certainly drew the harder assignments after a shoulder injury limited Dylan McCammack to designated hitter duties after his start against Carlinville on April 9. Tanner Mullen began by winning his first three decisions while utilizing good control and a pitch-to-contact philosophy; in a team-best 30 innings pitched, Mullen walked only three and hit no one. Then he was roughed up in his last two outings when Edwards County and Greenville enjoyed contact.

Carroll's 29 strikeouts thrown was the team best; King had a victory and three saves in a sometimes-closer role with the exception of Mullen and sophomore reliever Owen Anderson, control was an issue; 25 opposing batsmen were hit (that's more than one a game) and 81 were walked (that's almost four per contest).

Mullen had one complete game – at Roxana in a 4-0 win – and Bellaver had the other, a five inning, 17-1 conquest at Pana. That and a 13-2 vanquishing of East Alton-Wood River were the five inning short games Hillsboro won. They lost three short games: to Taylorville there, Mater Dei here, and Greenville there.

Personally, I enjoyed the adventures the past season brought and look forward to next March, especially if it's followed by a more temperate April and May.

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