Twelve days can make a world of difference in high school baseball, especially when the number of seniors you start most nights is equal to the number of opposable thumbs each possesses.
That’s the case for Tates Creek, which entered Friday as the No. 17 team in Max Preps’ computer rankings. That’s 17th in the state, but third in the 43rd District behind Lexington Catholic (fifth) and Lafayette (ninth). Such is life in what Coach Larry Poynter calls the “SEC of high school baseball.”
Fittingly, the Commodores finished third in the stacked league with a 5-3 record. They’ll have to knock off Lafayette in Tuesday’s semifinal matchup to keep their season alive; it’ll be the first postseason exposure for the bulk of them. Lately they’ve shown signs of being able to rise to such an occasion.
Tates Creek trailed 1-0 after four innings at Paul Laurence Dunbar on Monday. The Creekers were facing a pitcher, Tim Lancaster, they barely touched 12 days earlier in a 14-4 beatdown at home. Dunbar was up 5-0 after the first inning in that contest.
“The first game was absolutely just horrible,” Creek sophomore Blayne Deaton said. “They came out swinging the bat. They had seven or eight hits in the first inning, which killed us.”
But that was almost two weeks ago; the second time around, Creek kept Dunbar to five hits for the entire game and managed to make some timely smacks with the bat late to rally for a 2-1 victory in hostile territory. It was a vital win, too, as the loser was fated to the 4-5 game and tasked with needing two district tournament wins to qualify for the 11th Region Tournament.
“Any time you can get a district win is a good win,” Poynter said. “It’s not as much about payback as it is just putting yourself in a situation in the district where you stay out of the 4-5 game. …
“Some days we compete really well, some days we don’t. So the thing that I’m proud of is we came to the biggest moment of our season and our guys competed. I don’t know if we could have done that a month ago.”
Ups and downs
Tates Creek’s youth doesn’t make it an outlier in Lexington; several teams in the city play numerous underclassmen. But the Commodores went from one of the oldest lineups in the city in 2016 to possibly the youngest this season.
In addition to senior outfielders Jackson Beerman and Turner Gentry (both of whom starred on the football field as well for the Commodores), Tates Creek, on average, starts five sophomores and one freshman. Frequently two rookies take the field for Creek, so to hear Poynter say that the season has been full of “ups and downs” does not surprise.
One of their downs occurred just two days before the pivotal win at Dunbar. During the Fayette County Invitational, the Commodores hosted Greenup County and Eastern. A bounty of errors contributed to a 2-1 loss versus the Musketeers. An extra-inning affair went Eastern’s way, 5-4, after Tates Creek surrendered a 4-0 lead late in regulation.
“Those games are usually for building momentum, which we didn’t do,” said sophomore Eli Tencza.
Maybe that was a necessary wake-up call? Since then, Tates Creek has gone 3-0, following up its Dunbar bout with wins over a similarly inexperienced Bryan Station squad and a capable Sayre team. Lost momentum appears to have been gained.
While many are not playing every day, Creek’s older players have remained focused on the team’s collective goals — even if it means riding the pine until their number is called.
“One of the things that we talk about early before the season starts is accepting your role,” Poynter said. “And your role may be a guy in the dugout or your role may be a pinch runner or your role may be the starting shortstop. But for us to be successful, our guys have to accept their role and be the best at what their role is that day.”
Poynter acknowledged that the group of underclassmen at Tates Creek could be exciting to watch over the coming years.
It could also see its playing time diminish. He and his staff frequently remind their players that their innings are never guaranteed.
“If you’re not working, somebody’s gonna come pass you by,” Poynter said. “We’ve always been fortunate at Tates Creek to have talent so you might not see this kid yet because he’s in seventh or eighth grade, but they’re coming.”
That’s a lesson he hopes every player takes away from his program.
“It’s the same thing in the real world,” he said. “If you don’t work, somebody’s gonna take your job.”
Up to now the Commodores have put in enough work to get themselves in a solid position to make a run in the postseason. They split their head-to-head meetings with Lafayette this season, both one-run decisions, and had a chance to take their best win streak of the year into the playoffs (Creek traveled to North Laurel looking for its fourth straight win on Friday).
Creek’s inexperience will be put to its biggest test Tuesday.
“All that it comes down to is us making plays and staying focused,” Tencza said. “When we do so, we’re pretty tough to beat.”