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Boys Varsity Baseball · With its seniors leading the way, Raider Baseball continues to peak at the right time


REYNOLDSBURG — Despite there being five days to go in the 2018 regular season, it was Senior Day at Baldwin Road Junior High on the morning of Saturday April 21st. Five senior Raider Baseball players were recognized before a critical doubleheader against Bishop Ready, and the Raiders were looking to bounce back after losing a handful of close, competitive contests in what has been an extremely stacked OCC-Ohio division.

They got the job done, gained a lot of momentum in the process, and even overcame a crazy amount of curve balls thrown by Mother Nature along the way.

Coming off a heartbreaking 2-0 loss at Lancaster the night before, the Raiders were hungry out of the gate, got off to fast starts, and never looked back in both games of their Senior Day doubleheader against Bishop Ready. Reynoldsburg put up 17 combined hits at the plate, allowed two total runs on defense, and its pitchers combined for 15 total strikeouts in what ended up being 6-2 and 14-0 victories against the Silver Knights.

Senior Justin Lyons went a combined 3-for-3 with five runs and two RBIs in both games of the doubleheader for the Raiders. In fact, he reached base safely in all six of his at-bats of Senior Day, scoring one run in each of his first five at-bats and adding one of his two RBIs in his final at bat.

“We played hard,” Lyons said after the game. “We got more confidence from the Lancaster game that we lost [the night prior on April 20th], and we came out in attack mode.”

Senior Luke Duncan was the losing pitcher at that Lancaster game not even 24 hours prior despite what ended up being a dominating performance: throwing an efficient 70 pitches, allowing only two earned runs, and striking out five batters in a complete game on the mound to add to a huge list of strong Raiders pitching performances in 2018.

“[At Lancaster], my mentality was not different than any other game: throw strikes, hit my spots,” Duncan said of his performance in the loss at Lancaster.” I think the only difference was I came into that game more prepared. I did some research and changed up my grips on how I pitch, and everything helped out a lot. [The Lancaster hitters] were barely even touching [the balls] and swinging and missing. That’s what I was aiming for: putting in strikes and having them swing.”

But despite the scoreboard result not going the Raiders’ way even after Duncan’s amazing performance on the mound, he and the rest of the team did not seem phased on Senior Day and were certainly pleased with how they quickly bounced back.

“I think was still good for us to come out with the mentality of destroying and putting runs up early,” Duncan went on to say of Senior Day doubleheader sweep. “And that’s exactly what we did. In the first game, I felt we could have scored more, but we still won, and in the second game we came out even harder.”

Most importantly, the Raiders played a mistake-free game baseball at Lancaster to help preserve the arm of Duncan. Given that each of the Raiders pitchers play other positions on what is a very small 11-player roster, every pitch is huge along with limiting errors as much as possible, which the young Raiders lineup has continued to improve upon throughout the 2018 season. And with the enigma that has been Spring Ohio weather in 2018, efficient pitch counts are critical as the Raiders have had to play as many as three days in a row and four out of five days in some stretches thanks to a huge amount of weather postponements.

In other words, games like the one at Lancaster with a low pitch count and clean defense are huge for Reynoldsburg, as they enable the Raiders to use fresh pitchers the following days and speed up the resting period of the others, which in turn helps the Raiders create the lineups they need to get the most out of all phases of their game. This definitely played a huge part in Reynoldsburg’s huge Senior Day, as they were able to use three completely-rested pitchers despite playing in two consecutive days prior.

Junior Brock Mason threw a complete seven-inning game and 93 total pitches in Game 1 of the doubleheader against Bishop Ready, only allowing two runs in the 6th inning and striking out eight Silver Knights batters in the 6-2 win: the most amount of strikeouts by a Raiders pitcher this season. Sophomore Reece Crabtree got the win in Game 2, allowing only two hits, no runs, and striking out four batters in three innings. Junior Drew Hall pitched what ended up being the final two innings in relief, where he allowed one hit and got three strikeouts, as the Raiders won 14-0 in five innings by run rule thanks to a 10-run second inning.

Hall had come off of a win two weeks ago against Granville in the first game of their doubleheader. He came in to relieve Mason with the Raiders down 8-7 in the top of the 5th with one out after Granville rallied for five unanswered runs in three at bats. Hall would then strike out the next two batters he faced to swing momentum back in favor of the Raiders, and would score the go-ahead run at the plate on a bases-loaded walk on a full count pitch before Duncan cleared the bases on the next at-bat with a 3-RBI double in the 12-8 victory to preserve the doubleheader sweep. While he is primary defensive position is third base, his performances on the mound definitely have been key for the Raiders lineup, and his offense has also been superb.

“We know what we can do and who we can beat,” Hall said after the Granville game. “There’s nobody that we can’t beat. We can play with everybody; we’ll all start hitting, and I feel we’ll have a good season this year.”

Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of things to come as the offense has continued to come together, especially on Senior Day.

Senior Cam McCloud would add the Raiders’ 13th run of Game 2 onto the scoreboard in the 3rd inning, smacking an RBI-double off of the center field wall to cap off of a day that consisted of two hits, two walks, three runs, and two RBIs in the doubleheader. This adds to McCloud’s long list of amazing Saturday performances in his career, including a 3-for-3, six-RBI stat line at home against Granville two weeks prior to his Senior Day.

“[Senior Day] was really big just getting back on the winning side,” McCloud said after the game. “It’s going to give us a lot of confidence. I’m still doing the same approach [at the plate]: finding the pitch that I can drive and making sure I keep the same fundamentals for every at bat. From the first pitch to the last out, we’re going to continue to give 100% effort and hopefully we continue to come out with win.”

Senior TJ McVay has certainly given this type of maximum effort and has made the most out of his opportunities this season, and he capped off his Senior Day with a bang. In what would the final scoring play of the day, McVay would drill a line drive off of the left field wall, scoring the 14th and final run for the Raiders with an RBI double to cap off a 2-for-2 stretch with a walk, a run, and the aforementioned RBI. He went just as wild as the packed Senior Day crowd, if not more wild, when that happened.

“It just felt good off the bat,” McVay said of his RBI. “I was looking and saw it, and I was like ‘get by, get by, get by…’ and it got by and I went crazy. It was a great moment and the first double of my career. Senior Day was just a great day for that. It was a fun time, a memorable moment, and it was a phenomenal day for me. Being a part of this program with all of these players is amazing. The way they have grown [since 7th and 8th grade], the way they have improved; it’s crazy playing with these guys for all of these years, and I’m really proud of all of them.”

One senior who has really grown and improved in 2018 is catcher Justin Witherspoon, who saw his first varsity action late last season in 2017 on the biggest stage (more on this shortly). In 2018, Witherspoon has started every single game behind the plate and has done a fantastic job for the Raiders in his first full varsity season. He has caught for six different Raiders pitchers, all of whom also play a wide variety of positions in the infield and outfield, and has been a leader and field commander of the Raiders defense.

Witherspoon has been a huge factor on offense as well, smacking three RBIs and scoring two runs of his own between both games of the doubleheader on Senior Day.

“I’m just looking for anything in the zone,” Witherspoon said of his approach at the plate. “I’m just here to do my job for the team and do my part. As a four-hole hitter, especially when we have runners on, I need to make sure I’m producing for the team. If we don’t have anybody on base, I’ll be looking for my pitch to make sure I get on. But as a team, I’m here, I need to find a fastball and be aggressive, and drive the ball.”

All five of these seniors have definitely built upon the foundation left by the previous years’ senior classes and the consistent theme that has been emphasized by third-year head coach Bob Benjamin: family. Witherspoon and his fellow seniors saw this first hand coming up in the program as underclassmen, and they have certainly done their part in leading by example, supporting each other and especially their younger teammates, and thus demonstrating a large amount of intangibles that have certainly made a difference in 2018. Most importantly, this has played a huge part in boosting the confidence of everyone on the team and keeping everyone’s mindset positive at all times no matter what the situation may be.

“We all have each others’ backs,” Witherspoon went on to say. “If somebody is down, we’re gonna help them out and we’re not going to ever leave somebody hanging. We understand there is a lot of emotion in this game and it can get very heated and frustrating at times, but we are here for each other. We have to stay disciplined throughout all of our games: keeping our minds right, focusing on the game, playing for each other, and doing what we know what we can do. But our energy has to stay up; we have got to make sure we stay in each others’ heads and not let anybody get down. If we keep our energy up and we keep the mentality right, we’re going to win baseball games. We have the talent and we know we have the talent; we just have to stay disciplined and do what we know what we can do: play ball.”

Their discipline and focus have greatly improved as the season has progressed, and it is happening at the perfect time. It definitely showed on Senior Day and even the night before at Lancaster.

In fact, the most important stat on the mound by Mason, Hall, Crabtree, and also Duncan the night before given everything mentioned up to this point: no walks allowed. That and strong defense by the Raiders has certainly helped save the arms of its pitchers. Especially that of junior ace Mike Tooker, who has certainly done his part on the mound to keep the Raiders competitive in tough division games all season. This includes throwing 10 out of 13 shutout innings in a two-game stretch against Gahanna-Lincoln and Grove City, six more shutout innings in a complete game at Pickerington Central, and allowing only three runs in a complete game at Pickerington North.

He has also had great performances on the opposite side of the mound as the season has progressed, including going 2-for-2 with four RBIs and a run in the second game of the Senior Day doubleheader.

“It’s especially a confidence booster,” Tooker said after the second game on Senior Day. “Especially me knowing I’ve had runners in scoring position and haven’t executed the past couple of games. It felt really good just to come out here and finally be able to do something. I’m kind of looking for the same thing [at the plate]: somewhere I can drive a baseball. It doesn’t matter what side of the field if it’s outside or if it’s inside, right field or left field.”

Going back to his pitching, even though Tooker was unfortunately on the losing end in all of those aforementioned dominating performances, gems like those in arguably one of the toughest divisions in the state have proven to be huge for the Raiders in the long run when it matters the most.

Last season, the 34th-seeded Raiders traveled to Olentangy Liberty in the opening round of the playoffs, started Darius Montero on the mound, and the Raiders left Powell with a stunning 5-2 upset victory: Montero’s first win of the season after losing a lot of close games in the regular season despite similar dominating performances. This was also Witherspoon’s first appearance in the starting lineup, and he put up a critical base hit in the top of the 6th inning in a stretch that would eventually chase Olentangy Liberty’s starting pitcher with the game tied 2-2. Three unanswered runs by the Raiders with one out in that inning would put them ahead for good to cap off an undefeated start by all six OCC-Ohio teams in their opening round playoff games.

In fact, the Raiders were only one of three lower-seeded teams to pull off road upsets in their opening-round playoff games last year, but Reynoldsburg’s upset of Olentangy Liberty was the biggest upset of that round in terms of seed difference. The other two lower-seeded teams that pulled off upsets? Groveport-Madison and Newark: former OCC-Ohio rivals of the Raiders, who were not in the division in 2017 after the conference realignment. Even more, current division rival Gahanna-Lincoln would eventually fall in the Regional Finals last season in 2017, and three games short of a state title that fellow division foe Pickerington North won the year prior in 2016 despite entering that year’s postseason with nine losses.

Simply put, the Raiders have been battle-tested  in 2018 despite close losses in their very tough OCC-Ohio division. In other words, given that the Raiders are playing against arguably some of the strongest teams in the state on a regular basis (even if Mother Nature may have other ideas on certain days), this will set the Raiders up for massive success when it matters most. As their pitching has kept the Raiders competitive in these games, and their offense and defense is continuing to improve, they are peaking at the right time and thus have the potential to be a dangerous draw in the 2018 postseason that begins on May 7th.

“It’s the confidence and the mindset of this team,” Benjamin said after the game. “We haven’t seen anybody we can’t beat. We keep pounding it; it’s just them coming believing that. It’s huge for these guys to be doing what they are doing. We cannot complain one bit about our pitching, and they have been outstanding all year. [Assistant coach Tim Crabtree] has done a fantastic job with those guys.”

Benjamin has done a fantastic job in general for the Raiders since taking over for a squad that won four games the year before. They would triple their win count in Benjamin’s first year in 2016, come within inches of a trip to the district semifinals in 2017, and are set up for another postseason run in 2018 as this squad continues to improve more and more every game. But it is certainly the intangibles he has stressed and the culture he has established that has made a huge difference, especially with how close this Raiders squad is and how well they support each other on a regular basis.

“All of our kids mean everything to us,” Benjamin would go on to say. “I enjoy that we did [Senior Day] early this year, so it’s not the end, it isn’t emotional for them, and it isn’t emotional for us. We still have a lot of baseball to go, and we have already had Senior Day, so we know that they’ll have another opportunity to play on this field.”

They would make the most out of their opportunities on their home field on the week of April 23rd considering Mother Nature had other plans in mind. The three consecutive rainouts they had to start the week may actually benefit the Raiders in the long run as it helped further replenish the arms of the Raiders pitchers, which will definitely be needed in the critical home stretch of the regular season. Despite a big loss to Lancaster on Thursday April 26th when play finally resumed, the Raiders almost overcame an eight-run deficit on Friday April 27th against Grove City, who had put up eight unanswered runs in the top of the 4th in five swings of the bat. With one out in the bottom of the 6th inning, the Raiders would rally for four unanswered runs, and then would tack on one more run with nobody out in the bottom of the 7th on an RBI-single by McCloud. However, the Raiders would ground into a double play on the next at bat, and the Greyhounds would hold on from there to halt a furious Raiders rally in a 9-6 home loss.

Despite these two losses, sophomore outfielder Kaleb Holland and his boosted confidence will be key in the home stretch for the Raiders. He has played phenomenal defense at center field in his first year as a varsity starter and has consistently made great contact with his bat on offense, but he finally had the big stretch he was looking for against Lancaster and Grove City. Holland had a huge hit in the loss against Lancaster, and then went 2-for-2 with a walk and an RBI that came with the Raiders down 9-1 with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 6th to got the Raiders going.

“It finally feels good to start actually getting the ball to fall,” Holland said after the Grove City game. “I’ve been hitting the ball hard all year; it just hasn’t been falling and then it finally fell tonight. It really boosts my confidence, which has grown in the past couple of games actually. Last game [against Lancaster] I did get a hit, and tonight I went 2-for-2, so my confidence is really high right now. It was not our best start to the season, but maybe we can start putting a couple of at-bats together and some runs.”

They quickly turned it around in a doubleheader at Don Edwards Park in Newark on Saturday April 28th: one certainly different from all of the other doubleheaders for Reynoldsburg up to this point. Both games went into extra innings, and while the Raiders lost 1-0 to Mount Vernon in eight innings to open the day (more on this shortly), they would bounce back with a 4-3 victory against Westerville South in nine innings in the following game to end the week on a high note.

But with this momentum, the Raiders are now set up for their most important stretch to date in 2018. Given all of the rainouts, snowouts, or whatever you want to call them, the Raiders will be busy in the final week of the 2018 regular season. They will play a staggering five tough division games in five days, giving the Raiders plenty of opportunities for at least one big win that will almost certainly skyrocket the Raiders’ already-high confidence going into the rapidly-approaching postseason.

Especially since what ended up being the 32nd-seeded Raiders drew a rematch at 18th-seeded Mount Vernon in the opening round of the playoffs and 2018 OHSAA Central Ohio District 3 Bracket. Even more, the Raiders are actually seeded higher than they were in 2017 (34th), when they took down Olentangy Liberty who was seeded 13 spots higher than them in what ended up being the biggest upset of the opening round. That Raiders squad would then essentially come within inches of a massive second round upset at 6th-seeded and arch-rival Pickerington Central last year, almost completing a late rally in their season-ending 2-1 defeat despite the Tigers putting up both of their runs in the 1st inning.

“I think [April 20th at Lancaster] was very important,” Benjamin went on to say on Senior Day. “I think Lancaster is one of the best teams in the league. We should have been right there [in the 2-0 loss], and we left a lot of opportunities on the bases. We need a big division victory. If we would have gotten that out of the way when we had the opportunity many times, I think we’d be talking a little different than we are now. Once again, that’s back to their confidence. If we take down one of those teams, the mindset would be completely different, and that is what needs to happen.”

A normal, regularly scheduled Monday, Wednesday, Friday division stretch to close out the 2018 regular season ended up being five straight days of OCC-Ohio baseball thanks to two more games postponed multiple times due to weather, eventually landing on this upcoming Tuesday and Thursday. With how strong the OCC-Ohio has been this year, the confidence the Raiders are riding into this week, and how the Raiders have managed to navigate similar long stretches of baseball due to schedule adjustments, Reynoldsburg actually could not have been dealt a better hand in order to tune up for the postseason and also in terms of the postseason bracket itself. But this confident and close Raiders squad with an always-positive mindset will definitely embrace this opportunity just like they have done every other time up to this point.

And after this week goes into the books, hopefully with at least one big division win in between that they are looking for, the Raiders will most certainly be well-prepared and ready for another magical ride in the 2018 postseason.

Maybe Mother Nature was doing Reynoldsburg a favor all along and is a Raider Baseball fan after all.

REMAINING REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE:

How about five OCC-Ohio division games for Reynoldsburg in five days for Reynoldsburg to close out the regular season? This tough but critical stretch will certainly set the Raiders up for another postseason run, as Reynoldsburg will look for at least one playoff victory in back-to-back seasons for the first time in a long time.

First pitches for all games are at 5:00pm unless otherwise indicated.

Mon. 4/30: Away vs. Pickerington Central

Tues. 5/1: Home vs. Pickerington North (make-up of 4/16 game postponed twice due to weather)

Wed. 5/2: Home vs. Pickerington North

Thurs. 5/3: Away vs. Gahanna-Lincoln (make-up of 4/25 game postponed once due to weather; this game will be played at Blacklick Elementary School)

Fri. 5/4: Away vs. Lancaster (regular season finale)

POSTSEASON PREVIEW + SCHEDULE:

For the second time in three postseasons, the 32nd-seeded Raiders drew a regular season rematch in the opening round: Mount Vernon. Their meeting on April 28th at the neutral site of Don Edwards Park in Newark was scoreless in the entirety of regulation, though the Yellow Jackets broke the scoreless tie in the 8th inning and held on to hand the Raiders a close 1-0 loss. But should the Raiders win their opening-round rematch in the postseason, win at 16th-seeded Marysville in the second round, they could potentially meet 3rd-seeded division foe Grove City for the fourth time this season in the district semifinals at a neutral site (and the Raiders have played the Greyhounds tough in all three of their meetings this season home and away). And if that weren’t magical enough, they could potentially get a shot at what ended up being top-seeded Olentangy Liberty (who the Raiders upset last year in the opening round) for the second postseason in a row in the district finals on a neutral site.

Most importantly, the Raiders have been battle-tested in the OCC-Ohio division to say the least, playing each of their division foes three times in the regular season. Three of these five teams ended up being seeded in the top 10 of the 2018 Central Ohio District tournament bracket: #3 Grove City, #8 Lancaster, and #10 Pickerington Central. Pickerington North and Gahanna-Lincoln are also seeded comfortably in the top half of Central Ohio District teams at #19 and #20, respectively. All of these teams, including the Raiders, have battled each other tough in what ended up being a meat grinder of an OCC-Ohio division slate in 2018.

Mon. 5/7: The 32nd-seeded Raiders will travel to 18th-seeded Mount Vernon in the opening round of the 2018 OHSAA Central Ohio District Tournament. First pitch at the Yellow Jackets is at 5:00pm.

Wed. 5/9: The winner between Reynoldsburg and Mount Vernon will travel to 16th-seeded Marysville in the second round, with first pitch at 5:00pm.

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