Through the first nine league games, Hammond High's baseball team has proven itself by far the best team of this season.

A combinationof solid pitching, sometimes spectacular defense, excellent speed and robust hitting is tough to beat. The Bears are making my preseason prediction that they would win their first county title look like a good one. They have shown all-around quality en route to a 12-3 overall record and an 8-1 league mark.

Winning big is not unusual for the Bears. In fact, Wednesday's 15-5 victory over Wilde Lake was typical. The Bears rocked 14 hits, including a 5-for-5 spree by Jeff Lavis and two home runs by Jeff Cyran.

Lavis is batting .500 (22-for-44) with 23 RBI. Cyran, whose homers were his third and fourth of the year, is batting .388 (21-for-52) with 18 RBI and 20 runs scored. And Mike Alverez, who hit his third homer Wednesday, is batting .432 (19-for-44) with 10 RBI and 21 runs scored. The lead-off batter has stolen 24 bases.

Meanwhile, pitcherJoe Nestor, the most consistent hurler in the league this year, stopped the hard-hitting Wildecats on two runs through six innings beforeweakening in the seventh and giving up three more meaningless runs. The senior left-hander fanned eight, walked two and allowed nine hits.

Hammond uncharacteristically made two errors, both by third baseman Alverez. They have played errorless ball five times, an outstanding number for a high school team.

The team has stolen 62 bases andbeen caught stealing just three times.

Nestor has a 6-1 pitching record with 58 strikeouts and 12 walks in 54 innings. Mike Lerner is 5-1 with 31 strikeouts and 13 walks in 44 innings.

But Coach Bob Maxey remains cautious.

"This league scares me to death," he said. "It is so competitive, I'm just delighted we're 8-1. Every team has aquality pitcher who can beat you on a given day."

Wednesday's winby the Bears followed their first league loss Monday to Oakland Mills, an 8-0 shutout in which Scorpions pitcher Joe Coughlan threw a three-hitter while fanning 11 and walking just one.

"Hammond is a good club that punishes you for your mistakes," said Scorpions coach JoeShepherd.

Oakland Mills (7-6, 5-4), which is expected to provide Hammond its toughest challenge, stumbled early this year but has now won five of its last six games. Coughlan has a 4-1 pitching record with an 0.85 earned-run average.

"Coughlan is tough," Maxey said. "It was the first time we've been shut out this year."

Travis Williams leads the Scorpions with a .378 batting average. He has hit four homers and knocked in 13 runs. Matt Donovan is batting .368 with 11 RBI.

Oakland Mills overcame a 5-1 deficit to beat Glenelg, 8-6, Wednesday.

Oakland Mills has scored 60 runs in its last six games, indicating that its hitting has finally come to life.

Another team expected to contend this year is currently hot. Mount Hebron has won six straight games, including five league games, raising its overall record to 10-5, and its league mark to 6-3.

The Vikings battered second-place Centennial (9-6, 6-3) for 12 runs Wednesday, following a 21-17 non-league victory over Liberty Tuesday in which they stole 20 bases and had 22 hits.

The combined 41 hits by both teams in one game was the third highest ever for high school teams in the United States, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Record Book.

Vikings catcher Baron Gauna went 5-for-5with two triples against Liberty, and then went 2-for-2 against Centennial, giving him seven straight hits. He stole four bases against Liberty.

"Liberty is a real heavy-hitting club," Vikings Coach DaveAppleby said. "Our pitchers were throwing strikes, but the balls rarely got to the catcher."

Mount Hebron's win over Centennial moved it into a second-place tie with Centennial.

The Eagles, predicted to be an upper-echelon team and to go as far as its pitching carried them, have lost three of their last four through Wednesday's games.

"We threw the Hebron game away with errors, but that's really the only game we've thrown away all year," Eagles coach Ron Martin said.

Centennial's other recent losses were 11-9 to Wilde Lake and 9-1 toHammond. The Eagles won a 13-12 overtime thriller against Oakland Mills as Brent McGraw got a game-winning homer.

"Wilde Lake pounded our pitching and deserved to win," Martin said. "We trailed Hammond only 3-1 through five innings. We're struggling a bit. We had an 8-0 lead against Wilde Lake but couldn't hold it."

Martin thinks that the hitters around the league have finally caught up to the pitchers, who normally have an early season edge.

"There are fewer strikeouts and that makes it tougher on the defense," Martin said.

The league championship isn't over yet, but Hammond still looks like the bestbet to win it.

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