Just as most Greater Spokane League coaches predicted, Gonzaga Prep has scratched its way to the top of the standings. But the Bullpups have done it by using only half of the baseball talents of reigning league MVP Justin Blatner.
The sidewinding left-handed pitcher, who has committed to play for Gonzaga, tweaked his right oblique in March. As a result, coach Brian Munhall has refused to send Blatner to the plate this season.
That’s the same Justin Blatner who hit .426 with five home runs and 26 RBIs last season.
“He’s a gaping hole in our lineup,” Munhall said. “He’s a guy who would be hitting fourth for us. He hasn’t had an at-bat yet.”
Despite the cautious handling of Blatner, Gonzaga Prep has raced out to a 10-1 overall record and perfect 9-0 in the GSL. The Bullpups only loss was a one-run setback to Richland.
“It’s our goal each year to be where we are at,” Munhall said. “But the way our schedule works out, we will end up with a few of the top-tier teams in the end.”
Ferris and Shadle Park are locked in a tie for second with the exact same records, (8-3, 7-2 GSL). Just a shade behind, Mt. Spokane and Lewis and Clark are tied for fourth, with each club having a 6-3 record in league play.
“There is a lot more parity in the league this year,” Munhall said. “Last year, I didn’t think the pitching was nearly as good. But this year, I can pick out 10 to 15 guys who can beat you on any given day.”
When GSL teams reach the postseason, they will need to be ready to face the top pitchers, he said.
“It’s what Spokane needs to catch up. As we learned, when you get to regionals, everybody has a big guy,” Munhall said. “You better be able to beat the guy who throws 87 to 90 who is committed to a big school because everybody has one when you get to the final 16.”
Speaking of big arms, the GSL gets its marquee pitching matchup next Tuesday as Gonzaga Prep’s Blatner takes on Mt. Spokane ace Drew Rasmussen in a 4 p.m. game that will be played at Avista Stadium.
Rasmussen, who is 5-0 this year, has signed a letter of intent to play for Oregon State.
Thou shalt not throw
Munhall said he’s struggled to convince Blatner that the best course of action is to give his injury rest, with the hope of having his talents available at the end of the year.
“I would trade a GSL championship anytime to get something better at the end,” he said.
So as the players got a rest last week during spring break, Munhall ordered Blatner to stay completely away from any baseball-related activities.
“The last thing we went to do is lose him,” Munhall said. “He’s the arm that puts us over the cusp if we want to do some things.”
After the week of rest, Blatner is just now starting to get some swings in practice.
“He’s getting close to getting back in the lineup,” Munhall said. “Hopefully, he will be healthy. He’s a pitcher before he’s a hitter. Pitching is such a premium at the high school level.”
Cherry on top
As the team has managed Blatner’s health, Munhall said his biggest surprise has come from a kid who was expected to be a backup catcher and a fifth or sixth option for pitching. But Connor Cherry has been nothing but outstanding on the mound.
In stats compiled as of last weekend, Cherry was second in the league ERA (0.44) behind only Ferris’ Griffin Davis (0.32).
“He wasn’t even a guy who was in the mix at the start of the year,” Munhall said of Cherry. “With Justin not being healthy, all those innings went to him. (Cherry has) been as good as anybody in town.”
Asked what changed, Munhall said in a word: “Confidence.”
“I said we needed one big guy to emerge. It’s Cherry,” Munhall said. “He struggled last summer and last year and all of the sudden … whatever he did finally clicked. He’s throwing two or three pitches for strikes.”
Shadle Park’s Evan Douglas is a one-man stat machine. As of last weekend, Douglas was hitting .542 with four home runs, five doubles and 10 RBIs.
Even with those gaudy numbers, Douglas trailed Ferris’ Tanner Parker who was leading the league with a blistering .700 batting average. Parker also had five stolen bases, a triple and three doubles. On the mound, Parker has two wins, a 1.97 ERA and a save.
But Gonzaga Prep players dominated the categories of runs scored and RBIs.
Anthony Gosline (15), Jordan Rathbone (12), Rhett Larson (12) and Mason Kuebler (10) led the standings for runs scored.
Ferris’ Alex Jondal was leading the league with 15 RBIs, but he was followed by G-Prep’s Steven Machtolf (11) and Gosline (10).
Munhall said the key to getting his hitters going simply was getting enough at-bats.
“They can finally see the baseball,” he said. “They can finally get the mechanical garbage out of the way. They are getting their timing down and getting comfortable.”
Munhall said the Saturday game, Mt. Spokane at Gonzaga Prep, has been moved up from 1 p.m. to noon.
Playing on the road in the Northwest League is never easy.
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