September 22, 2014

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Division II regional baseball preview: Keystone feeling confident thanks to dominant pitching, defense

Pitching has been a strength of the Keystone Wildcats all season thanks to the talents of Collin Fitzgerald, left, Kendle Stiner, middle, and Tyler Gullett. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Pitching has been a strength of the Keystone Wildcats all season thanks to the talents of Collin Fitzgerald, left, Kendle Stiner, middle, and Tyler Gullett. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Pitching and defense win games.

Just ask Keystone, which used that formula to claim its fourth straight district title and earn a spot in today’s Division II regional semifinal against Perkins at Tiffin University at 5 p.m.

Keystone (24-5) was able to accomplish that goal even with a move up to Division II thanks to outstanding pitching from Tyler Gullett, Kendle Stiner and Collin Fitzgerald.

The trio has allowed just three runs in three games in tournament play.

“We expected our pitchers to come through,” Keystone coach Bert Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t have any doubt about our pitching and defense going into the playoffs. We would’ve liked to light it up at the plate a little more, but it gets a little tougher the deeper you get.”

Forced to face each opponent’s best pitcher, the normally high-scoring offense was limited to just eight runs in the three playoff wins, but that didn’t deter the team’s“Big 3” on the mound.

“They worked really hard in the offseason,” Fitzgerald said. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is their demeanor and approach on the mound has been fantastic. Those guys just go out there and you can just see it in their eyes that they believe they can do it.”

“Our pitching has been phenomenal this season,” said Gullett, who beat Vermilion 3-1 in the sectional final. “Pitching and defense won us all these playoff games. Facing good pitching ourselves, we know we have to play solid defense and throw strikes on the mound.

“I knew before I came back here (from St. Edward last season), they already had a legacy. I just wanted to add to it. I grew up in LaGrange and have played with these guys since I was little. I’m just happy to come back and finish with these guys.”

Kent State-bound Eli Krauss held the ’Cats to a pair of runs and Buckeye nearly upset them in the district semifinal, but with the potential game-winning runs on in the seventh, Stiner was able to end the game with a strikeout.

“That game was definitely the most fun I’ve had in my high school career. I’ll never forget that game,” said Stiner, who is 8-0 after going 7-0 last year.

“I was just trying to throw first-pitch strikes to get ahead of the batters and let my defense work. I knew Buckeye would hit the ball, but I have so much faith in our defense, I just threw strikes and let the ‘D’ work.”

Fitzgerald allowed just one run in a complete game district final win over Benedictine. After allowing a run in the second inning, he shut down the Bengals the rest of the game.

He even helped his own cause on a head’s up baserunning play when he followed the game-winning run home, scoring from second on a possible double-play ball to give himself and the team an insurance run in a 3-1 win.

“We have a lot of trust in our defense so we were just trying to throw strikes and not throw around people,” said Fitzgerald, who is 5-0 with a 0.52 ERA. “We know if we could put up at least two runs in a tight game, we can win it with our pitching and defense.

“Winning regionals is all we care about. All we do is dream baseball every day.”

Stiner gives a lot of credit to pitching coach Rob Johnson, who joined the staff two seasons ago.

“Our whole pitching staff has turned around,” said Stiner, who enters today’s game with 72 strikeouts and a 0.46 ERA. “It’s a team game so I don’t go out there and try to strike anyone out. I let my defense work and let the strikeouts and wins come.”

The Wildcats ran the table in the Patriot Athletic Conference this season, going 16-0 to win the Stars Division title. That was a goal set before the season after falling one game short to Buckeye a year ago.

Perkins (24-4) now stands in Keystone’s way of reaching their final goal of making it to state.

Last season, the Wildcats lost to Youngstown Ursuline in the regional semifinal for the second straight season. In 2011, they defeated Youngstown Ursuline 5-0 to advance to the regional final, only to lose 10-4 to Canton Central Catholic.

Coach Fitzgerald is hoping this year’s team will be the first Keystone baseball team to make it to state.

“It’d be fantastic for them, the team, the fans and the school,” Fitzgerald said. “It’d be great. The boys put a lot of pressure on themselves to get out of district. I think they felt winning district last year in D-III as juniors was a nice thing, but their place in Keystone baseball history wouldn’t be
solidified unless they can get farther as seniors.

“This year, they went undefeated in conference, tied the school record for wins in a season with 24, they won district and now, hopefully, they can concentrate on playing baseball and we can push forward to state.”

Contact Steve Walker at 329-7135 or djstevo34@hotmail.com.

TODAY
WHAT: Division II regional semifinal
WHO: Keystone (24-5) vs. Perkins (24-4)
TIME: 5 p.m.
WHERE: Heminger Field, Tiffin University
RADIO: WEOL 930-AM

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