Baseball: Legal theft
By BRANDON HURLEY
Greene County epitomizes small ball.
The Rams’ sparkling pitching staff and a stellar knack for base running has powered the baseball team out of a deep hole.
The boys of summer clawed their way above .500 after a 4-8 start, ripping off a six game win streak at one point 1 thanks in large part to the legs and IQ of lead-off hitter, Chase Stoline.
The senior has amassed a staggering 34 stolen bases, which is third best in Class 3A. Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Ryley McGregor leads the state with 44 steals in 36 games. Greene County only played 25 games during the regular season. Stoline was far and away the front man in the Heart of Iowa Conference - he amassed 11 more steals than PCM’s Preston Van Wyk – helping the Rams to an HOIC best 91 steals, which placed them top 15 in the state.
Stoline pushes himself to make an impact at the start of a game – he’s the first batter the opposing pitcher faces. If he can not only get on but also score, it should set the tone for the entire game.
“It gives our guys the belief that we can win,” the center fielder said. “It shows us that the pitcher is hitable. When I don’t get on, it takes a little air out of the balloon, you obviously don’t want to start with one out.”
The moment he reaches first, Stoline starts running through ways how he can advance. Getting that first run is his ultimate goal, and if he can have a little fun doing it, why not?
Stoline thrives off the freedom Sawhill allows the speedster. The coach trusts he can put the team in winning position. They both have a good feel for what type of damage Stoline can do against most pitcher and catcher combos. Stoline will often egg the coach on.
“Sometimes when I’m feeling antsy, I’ll nod toward the base and he’ll notice it and give me something back to let me know if I should steal or not,” Stoline said. “Usually, we are on the same page. Second or third pitch, if it’s a catcher we both know I can go on, he’ll give me the sign or I’ll go.”
The Rams have revved up their base running over the last three years, compiling 277 total steals over that span, finishing 10th in 3A in 2016 (96 SB) and fifth in the state in 2015 (104 SB). It’s a philosophy Greene County head coach Mark Sawhill has come to lean on. It helps when he’s got the right tools as well. Logan Lansman (11) and Ben Bravard (10) have combined for 21 total steals while Trey Tucker (5), Austin Delp (6) and Tom Gannon (5) have all crossed the five steal plateau this season.
“You always want to get guys in scoring position whenever you can,” Sawhill said. “We aren’t very good at getting the bunt down to move people over, so we get a stolen base when we can.
Thankfully, we are blessed with a little speed. It takes a little bit of knowledge to know when to go too.”
Base stealing involves a heavy amount of mental fortitude as well as skill. Of course, speed is a key contributor, but without a good jump or a lack of respect for a pitcher’s pick-off move, things can go downhill in a hurry.
Sawhill places emphasis on the pitcher when addressing steals with his base runners.
“A lot of people will say you’re stealing off the catcher, you’re not,” he said. “You’re stealing off the pitcher, his movement. That goes with the timing.”
When Stoline is given the greenlight, he’ll take a few initial steps off the bag before the pitcher pulls the ball into his glove, coming to a rest, or set. The base runner then takes another couple of steps to stretch his lead, keeping a close eye on the pitcher. He wants to test the hurler, while also sizing up if and when he can steal.
“I like it when they throw back to first to hold me on,” Stoline said. “When they do that, I’ll know where I’m at and hopefully I’ll be able to get off even farther and I can also time the pitcher.”
The benefit of facing right-handed pitching for a majority of the summer has allowed the multi-sport athlete to frequently amass solid jumps. He’s hoping to head to second on the pitcher’s first move, keeping a keen on the right leg.
“It’s easy to go off their first move. If they are coming back to you, they’ll usually step off with their right foot,” Stoline said. “If you see their shoulders start to go toward home, that’s a pretty [obvious] sign that they are going home and you have the green light to go. Usually, the first move on a right-hander is pretty good way to get a good jump.”
But first, Stoline must get on base to even have a chance at extending his conference lead. He’s become a patient hitter over the years, using his time at the plate to his advantage, getting a feel for the pitcher. Obviously, you can’t get steals if you aren’t reaching safely. “I usually look at the first pitch. If it’s a strike, then the next pitch I’m swinging,” Stoline said.
Even if he swings and misses on the next pitch, Stoline knows he still has one more chance. He can work a count often to his advantage. The senior’s maturity shines brightly as he’s compiled a .338 average out of the lead-off spot this summer, to go with 23 hits and 15 walks.
“If I go down 0-2, I almost feel more comfortable in that situation,” Stoline said. “I know the pitcher will come at me with a good pitch, a curveball. By then, I’m comfortable in the box and there’s a few times where I’ve gotten walks out of it and a few base hits.”
It’s Stoline’s responsibility to kick-start the offense, and if that means taking risks, so be it. The senior stole a season-high six bases in a win over Carroll. He’s totaled 48 steals in his career and holds the highest on base percentage on the team, at .458. He’s the torch-bearer for Sawhill’s small ball philosophy.
“That’s what we want. You have to have that guy that will lead off and get on base,” Sawhill said. “He’s been great. He’s wanting to steal and I’ve had to even hold him back a little bit. He’s been caught a few times, but only because of a poor jump or poor read, not because of speed.”
Right off the bat, you want to get him on and get him over.”
Sawhill admits the Rams aren’t perfect on the base paths, but base running is a great way to turn around a game.
“It puts a little pressure on the defense and gets them to work a little harder,” the coach said. “It’s high school baseball, if you force a throw, anything can happen.”
The Rams open postseason play Friday, July 14 as they battle ADM (18-13) in Harlan. The winner will have a potential matchup with defending-champion and top-ranked Harlan (30-2) on Monday night in the district final.