BASEBALL: Hornets look to improve during tourney

Head coach Kirk Bock and his Bryant Hornets will be in sunny Florida this week for spring break, playing in a tournament outside of Orlando.
But the trip won’t be all fun and games.

The defending 7A State Champions are looking to iron out some bad habits before getting into the thick of the season.

Bryant (6-2, 2-0) arrived Monday in Sanford, Fla., after leaving from Pine Bluff, where they lost to Watson Chapel 9-8 in the finals of the Billy Bock Classic on Saturday.

While Bock likes the determination he’s seen in his players so far this season, he said his players have room for improvement.

“We’re playing as hard as I expected, but we make mistakes like anybody,” he said. “We talk a lot about playing hard every pitch, and that we can’t take innings off.”

Bock said the Hornets’ mistakes have been mostly mental.

“It’s hurt us, but they’re getting better,” he said. “They’re playing as hard and they can.”

Along with Rogers Heritage, Bryant will be playing a handful of Florida teams in the tournament, which is pool play. Today the Hornets face Saint John Neuman of Naples, Fla. Bryant also will play Wednesday and Thursday, but not before stopping by Disney World on Tuesday.

The Hornets are still without Blake Davis and Hunter Mayall, who are still recovering from shoulder surgery. Also, Blane Jackson, the Hornets’ regular catcher, has been out of the lineup after having knee surgery.

The duties behind the plate have been taken care of by sophomore Hayden Lessonberry and junior Dylan Cross. While Lessonberry has spent more time at catcher, Bock said Cross, who acts as designated hitter and spends time on the mound, “helps take the pressure off Hayden.”

Bock said Cross has “done well” hitting cleanup for the Hornets. “He’s got a lot of life and and a great breaking pitch,” he said.

Leading off in the lineup is senior Chris Joiner, who plays left field where “he’s doing a tremendous job,” Bock said.

“He’s made some unbelievable plays,” he said.

Bock said Joiner also has been a large contributor to the offense, as has most of his players.

“We’ve all been swinging it pretty good,” he said.

Next in the lineup is senior Tyler Brown, who plays third and first and, offensively, has “come on the last couple of games and done a great job,” Bock said.

Rounding off the top three of the lineup is junior Jordan Taylor, who just returned after an ankle injury put him on the disabled list.

“He’s not back to full speed yet, but he came back and made an immediate impact offensively and defensively,” Bock said, adding that Taylor is batting with a more than .500 average.

In the No. 5 hole is first baseman Landon Pickett, a senior who’s hitting around .550 and also pitches.

Bock said, “He came out [Saturday] and threw four and a third innings, only giving up one hit and having eight strikeouts. He’s getting better every time he goes out.”

At shortstop is junior Tyler Nelson, who also pitches and plays second base at times. In fact, Bock said a major strength of his team is the ability of his players to slide around to other positions as the pitching rotation changes.

Batting seventh is Lessonberry, who Bock said, like many catchers, seems to have an advantage at bat after “seeing pitches 100 times a game.”

“He has a good feel for the strike zone,” he said, “and especially for what the umpires are calling as strikes that particular game. Those guys seem to see it pretty well.”

Finishing up the lineup are junior Josh Pultro, who plays center field is batting .380, and senior Evan Jobe, who’s “leading the team in hitting, doubles, hits and average,” Bock said. 

Having him at the end of the lineup allows the top of the lineup to produce even more runs, Bock said because Jobe also serves as a great base runner. “He’s really fast.”

The Hornets’ last lineup regular is senior Lucas Castleberry, who’s recently returned after a leg injury from a sledding accident kept him out for a month.

“We started him back and [junior varsity] to get his feet wet,” Bock said. 

Since returning to the varsity squad, Castleberry has maintained a 1.000 batting average in five trips to the plate.

“Every time we’ve used him, he’s come up big,” Bock said.

Castleberry acts as the team “utility player,” and is comfortable anywhere but has seen most of his time on the diamond at third base, shortstop and second, Bock said.