Heidelberg ‘roles’ into OAC tournament
On team that shared regular-season league title, everyone plays part
After two years, Heidelberg’s baseball team is on a roll, and back where it belongs.
The Student Princes, co-regular season champions of the Ohio Athletic Conference, travels to Berea today to compete in the league’s postseason tournament.
The Student Princes will play Ohio Northern at 1 p.m.
Heidelberg comes into postseason play with a 28-11 overall record, and eye-popping offensive numbers.
Heidelberg’s team batting average is .331. It’s OPS (on base percentage plus slugging average) is .873. The Student Princes have scored 321 runs, and in the final doubleheader of the season — one that the HU needed to sweep to get a piece of the league title — they outscored Capital 30-4.
The pitching is solid as well, with a starting staff that is led by Alex Sir Louis, who is 8-1 with 3.00 ERA. Meanwhile, closer Joey Wenning — a converted infielder — has racked up eight saves.
But according to coach Chad Fitzgerald, what makes the 2019 Student Princes special is their attitude.
“I think the reason the team’s where we’re at right now, I think they just kind of have a chip on their shoulder,” Fitzgerald said.
And maybe the reason the team is doing so well is that every player plays their own role on the team, and plays it well.
“We have a variety (of hitters), which I think is what makes it so hard to pitch to us, because as a pitcher, it’s very difficult to go out there with nine different plans,” Fitzgerald said. “If you have a lineup where everybody’s pretty similar, you can just go with one approach and one plan. We don’t have that.”
Take right fielder and leadoff hitter Kane Bateman.
Bate doesn’t try to hit home runs — he hasn’t hit one out all year. But he gets on base in more than 43 percent of his at-bats. He he hit .384 this season, with 12 doubles and 42 runs.
“As a leadoff hitter, I like to go up there and be aggressive. I like to look for that first pitch, I like to swing early in counts,” Bateman said. “Another thing I think about this offense is, we know our role. I know I’m not a huge home run guy. I’m gonna go up there and just try to get a base hit, because the guys behind me, 2-3-4, all the way through 9, I know if I get on base there’s a good chance I’m gonna be hit in.”
Heidelberg does have some power, with left fielder Matt Psychas and catcher and cleanup hitter Marc Ochoa combining for 11 homers and 79 RBIs.
“Everyone does know their role,” said senior first baseman Parker Fronk, who hit .296 with three homers in the regular season. “I’m definitely a middle-of-the-lineup guy, hit for a little bit of power, get on base and have good (at-bats).”
That attitude extends to the pitching staff as well.
“I would say that our pitching staff is very similar to our offense,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of guys that didn’t have as big of a role … two guys are back from last year, but other than that, it’s a bunch of guys who have kind of waited their turn and learned from the guys in front of him, and realize that now that they’re on the field, they’re gonna do everything they can to make sure they stay on the field.”
No one exemplifies that better than Wenning, who began his collegiate career playing the infield. Two years ago as a sophomore, he played in 16 games and had 27 at-bats as a position player.
But he wanted to pitch.
“I went to them, and approached the pitching side of things, where they, the coaches, were kind of questioning it,” Wenning said.
But Fitzgerald and the staff agreed to give it a try.
“We knew what he could do, because we saw him pitch a little bit when he was in high school, and he had a really good arm playing the infield,” Fitzgerald said.
Now, Wenning is a key part of the Heidelberg bullpen. He has thrown 17 innings and struck out 19 batters.
Fitzgerald credits the success to the work Wenning has put in.
“I think just his work ethic that he puts in the weight room and on the field, we knew that was gonna translate over to the pitching side of things,” he said. “It’s obviously worked well for him.”
Wenning also credited his teammates for helping in the transformation.
“(I’ve been) learning from my teammates like Trevor Adkins and Alex Sir Louis, who’ve had a lot of experience on the mound,” he said. “So, learning from them, (and trying) to implement some of the things they do onto the mound myself.”
The pitching staff also has some local flavor, with New Riegel product Alec Zoeller seeing time on the mound.
The freshman has appeared in eight games, with a 1-2 record. He’s made six starts and thrown 26 innings, striking out 23 batters.
And after pitching for the Blue Jackets last year, Zoeller is pitching for a championship-winning college team.
“I mean, it’s surreal,” Zoeller said. “Coming into this year, obviously, I didn’t know what to expect, because it’s my first year of college, but I knew we had something good.”
Fitzgerald felt that way about Zoeller.
“His offseason was really, really good, so his fall, he had some really bright spots, (and) his winter was amazing,” he said. “We went down to Florida thinking he was gonna be within, potentially our top two or three or four guys, and he went out and performed. He wants the ball, he works hard, and it’s been good to see him develop.”
The Student Princes also have two other hurlers from area high schools. Clyde southpaw Cayden Rollins has carved out a niche in the bullpen, appearing in seven games and sporting a steady 3.44 ERA. Fremont Ross’ Trey Ickes, another freshman, has seen action in six games and averaged a strikeout an appearance.
“Cayden Rollins from Clyde and Trey Ickes from Fremont, all those guys have had some big roles on the mound,” Fitzgerald said.
The biggest role on the mound, at least right now, belongs to Sir Louis. He will get the start today against Ohio Northern. The HU ace has thrown 66 innings, allowed just one home run, and averages nearly five strikeouts per nine innings.
He also started last Saturday.
Not only will he be pitching on short rest, but he knows he could be needed later in the tournament, too.
“I’ll be starting Thursday on three days rest, and then (Fitzgerald) said, ‘Be ready for Saturday,'” St. Louis said. “So I’ll probably have to start Thursday, and then out of the pen if we need me.”
Of course, if Sir Louis pitches Saturday, that means HU is in the finals.
Sir Louis wants to get there, and beyond.
“I think we could make it all the way,” Sir Louis said. “We definitely have the team for it this year. The pitching staff’s been phenomenal, the offense has been even more phenomenal. We’ve just got to piece everything together, and I feel like it’s piecing together at the right time.”
And having an offense that includes players like Kyle Jenkins (43 RBIs), Tyler Smith (.360 batting average) and Zach Doran (.323) makes pitching a little easier.
“This offense is a lot of fun to watch, and even more fun to pitch behind,” Sir Louis said. “It’s easy coming into a game with a three-run lead in the first inning. I know if I can keep the opposing guys from less than three or five runs, I know we’re gonna win, because I know our offense is really good.”
“I haven’t had a ton of save chances, because our offense puts up 15 runs like the snap of the fingers,” Wenning said.
So now there’s another test: Tournament play.
The players said they are ready.
“We’ve got to treat it as just another game. We’ve played in big games before, in the four years here, and it’s just another game, the game of baseball,” Fronk said. “We’ve worked four years for this weekend, I’m excited for it to finally be here.”
They’re ready to “role” with it.