How important is a good defense in high school baseball?
Well, Lakeside made not a single error over three games in advancing to the Georgia High School Association Class AAAA state semifinals. Its opponent, Northgate, made three.
But, like everything else in life, it's not that simple.
Coaches want their pitchers to be as comfortable as possible on the mound in big games. Just ask Lakeside's Game 1 starter and clinching Game 3 closer Jeffrey Stoner about what a good defense does for your comfort level.
"I just go out there and pitch strikes," Stoner said. "I know the team's going to be behind me making defensive plays."
Every out is critical in a seven-inning game, right Jeffrey?
"Absolutely," he affirmed.
Despite their three errors, the Vikings matched the Panthers' stellar defense. Their left-fielder, Chris Brewer, made arguably the defensive play of the series early in Game 2, saving three runs by leaping to catch a long fly ball hit by Derek Russo with the bases loaded.
The Panthers still won that game, 11-4, but Brewer prevented the game from becoming an early blowout.
Pitching is considered by many to be the factor most important to a team's chances of advancing deep into the playoffs. For example, an ace such as Northgate's Conner Kendrick, who has signed with Georgia Tech, can often be counted on for one of the two wins a team needs to advance. That scenario played out in Game 1 on Tuesday, though Lakeside nearly broke through on several occasions against the left-hander.
However, as important as pitching is, defense can trump it.
Take the quandary facing Northgate's coaches. They had to decide between leaving their best defensive infielder, Brad Swinney, at third base or starting Swinney, also one of their top pitchers, on the mound in Game 3. The kicker was that the third baseman who would have to take his place was a freshman, who an assistant coach admitted was shaky at times this season.
The coaching staff decided to start Swinney and play the freshman at third base. As it turned out, the youngster played well beyond his years, snagging several balls at the hot corner. But the assistant coach in the press box was on pins and needles every time a ball was hit there.
Defense goes beyond the box score. There are many instances when a mental mistake might not show up as an error, but proves costly.
And defense goes beyond just a play made or a play not made. It can boil down to a team's confidence level, a pitcher's comfort level, or having to make a tough decision on whether to sacrifice defense for another benefit.
The Panthers appear to know their way around the diamond, defensively. It's a trait that helped them make it this far, and it's one that they will have to maintain as the competition level continues to rise.
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