As far as clichés go in baseball, one of the most used is how important it is to rely on "pitching and defense." The oft-vocalized statement has been thrown around many times, but it's a cliché for a reason. Brandon High is the next in line to have the "pitching and defense" moniker attached.
When the 19-8 Eagles take the field today (10 a.m.) in Port St. Lucie against New Smyrna Beach (18-11) in the Class 7A semifinals, Brandon will once again fall back on what it has all season: Its ace Chris Toney and the defense behind him.
"We've really hung our hats on that pitching and defense," Stallbaumer said. "We've had years where it was all about numbers, all about college guys and pro prospects and the focus was individual based."
"This year is different. It's never been about one guy, it's only about team."
The Eagles' starting pitching tandem of the senior Toney (10-1) and junior Eric Hinostroza (5-1) has provided consistency and stability to the rotation, especially on Brandon's current tear.
Toney, whose only stumble this season came in the form of a 2-1 loss to Bloomingdale on March 13, has methodically worked his way through opponents this season notching 79 strikeouts and posting a 1.02 ERA. In his three playoff starts and one save appearance, the 6-foot, 160-pound Toney has allowed eight hits in 22 innings (including three complete games) and allowed just one earned run. The senior has stymied hitters with what on first look, appears plain and hittable, but has carved through lineups.
"I think when teams watch him warm up they are foaming at the mouth," Stallbaumer said. "Then they look up and the game's over and they are wondering what happened."
Eagles catcher Adam Sass said the deceptiveness of his co-captain is something he's seen translate to a number of shaking heads as opposing hitters make their way back to the dugout.
"He has different arm angles, a great cutter and they come up thinking they're going to get an 85 mph fastball and crush it over the fence," Sass said of Toney. "Then it dips and dives in all different directions and they are walking back into the dugout telling their teammates, 'I have no idea what just happened.'"
In his first start in 18 days, Hinostroza, who will get the ball if the Eagles reach the final, worked six innings allowing two runs (one earned) on one hit in the Eagles' 3-2 region final win against Kissimmee Osceola, before Toney came in for the save. Stallbaumer said watching the junior follow Toney has become almost a game of Hinostroza trying to equal or better his teammate.
What is missing from the team and what it has had in years past, like its state final four run in 2008, is that stat book, county-leading RBI numbers and a big crooked number in the home run column. What the offense has is a bunch of gritty role players scratching out just enough hits and runs to support quality starts.
"What's unique about our situation is that we were built around singles-type baseball all year," Stallbaumer said. "We're not the team that was going to hit back-to-back home runs. What I like most about these guys is there is no real .420 (average) guys in the lineup, but there aren't any .210 guys."
"Where we get our five, six hits is different each night. We're not expecting it to be and that has been a big part of our success."
Sass is a prime example of that kind of player for Stallbaumer. The senior captain entered Brandon four years ago as an infielder, but transitioned to an outfield and utility slot. However, an ACL injury to would-be starting catcher Tyler Raymond last year left the Eagles coaches looking for an option. Sass happily and somewhat seamlessly took on that role and has become one of Stallbaumer's biggest assets.
"Our pitching has been so solid because pitching and catching go hand-in-hand," Stallbaumer said. "For two years it has been nothing but consistent as Adam has quarterbacked this team."
"That to me shows how this team has worked a guy, like Adam who has stepped into a role for us and not just made it work, but helped us be successful."