Steady on the run

The Baltimore Sun

Denny Snyder seldom doubted that his North Carroll baseball team would be able to produce runs this season.

It's the level of that production that has stunned the Panthers' 14th-year coach.

"I knew we could put runs on the board," Snyder said, "but to what degree, I wasn't quite sure. There were still some questions about how they would mesh and how the lineup would work itself out."

Six weeks into the season, those questions have been answered, with No. 11 North Carroll on track to score runs at a near-record pace.

Heading into Friday's game against Century, the Panthers (9-2 overall, 6-2 Chesapeake Conference, 2-0 Carroll County) had scored 91 runs in 11 games. If they continue that pace for the final week and a half of the regular season, they'll finish with the second-highest average of runs per game (8.3) in Chesapeake Conference history, and be among what's believed to be the top five all-time in the Monocacy Valley Athletic League.

The team has scored at least three runs in an inning 14 times this season. Down 6-0 to South Carroll earlier this month, the Panthers exploded with 15 runs in an inning, breaking North Hagerstown's MVAL record.

They followed that by scoring nine in an inning against Linganore.

Most impressive to Snyder is the consistent production he's getting throughout the lineup. Through Thursday, every player on the team had an on-base percentage of at least .326, and the team was batting a collective .337.

"From top to bottom all the way through, it's one of the best [lineups] I've had in 14 years," said Snyder, who last year led his team to its first county and regional titles in school history. "The kids are having quality at-bats and producing. I just like the way everybody on this team picks each other up. The hitting is contagious, and they just keep feeding off each other.

"The thing I like is that we're scoring runs in bunches, but we're also being pretty fundamental."

Case in point was last Monday, when the Panthers scored on a pair of ground balls, a sacrifice fly and a squeeze to avenge an earlier loss to Thomas Johnson with a 4-0 win.

The production is a welcomed sight after the loss of top pitchers Dan Ditman, Justin Hare and Dominic Pasta to graduation last year.

"We thought our pitching was going to be good, but not as good as last year," said Mike Yingling, a catcher who has ably stepped into a starting pitching role. "So we're like, 'OK, we need to score some runs this year because our pitching is not going to be that great.' "

The lineup features speed at the top in outfielders Nick Riley and Justin Carver -- who have combined to score 31 runs in 11 games -- power in the middle in first baseman Levi Lafferty (.389 average, four extra-base hits) and shortstop Evan Picciotto (league-leading 20 RBIs), and two of the team's best hitters toward the bottom in pitcher-third baseman Jeremy Ritz (.447) and designated hitter A.J. Capece (.385).

The team got a major boost with the return of Riley, who had sat out each of the past two seasons with stress fractures in his lower back.

"We have great hitting, one through nine," Picciotto said. "I don't believe we have any all-stars, but everybody is capable of doing the job. I can't really pick anybody who I'd rather have step up to the plate. They can't pitch around anybody when you have the whole lineup hitting."

And that has made the job significantly easier for the team's new crop of pitchers, with Yingling, Ritz, Steve Stonesifer and Christian Wingate combining to go 9-1 with three saves.

"As a pitcher, it's huge," Yingling said. "It gives you a lot of comfort when you're out there on the mound, knowing that you have run support to work with."

Last year, the team thrived by winning several close, low-scoring games, including a 4-3 win over South Carroll in 19 innings.

This spring, routs are the norm.

"It makes it much easier when you have everybody hitting the ball and everybody putting the ball in play," Picciotto said.

Snyder said that while he's had lineups in the past that have been exceptionally strong in the one-through-five spots, he's never had a lineup so devoid of holes.

With less than two weeks before the start of the postseason, the only question that remains is how long the onslaught will continue.

"We all have the same goal in mind," Picciotto said. "We just go one game at a time, and soon enough we'll be there where we have that big game. When that time comes, we'll step up to the plate."

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