NEW PORT RICHEY — When Jason Heinrich plays baseball, it’s all business.
River Ridge High’s 6-foot-tall, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher/first baseman and UCF commit is having fun on the diamond, but there’s a reason the junior’s nickname is “The Machine.”
“He got that nickname because when he came up, he didn’t talk to many people,” said Jack Homko, in his 23rd season as Royal Knights coach. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a kid will go to the next level, and it was evident when he was a freshman. He’s always been serious about baseball. Potential is a word everyone loves, but some never fulfill it, but I knew he was going to go further.
“He’s one of those kids that works all the time and is very serious about baseball.”
There’s proof, too. As a pitcher, Heinrich is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 48 strikeouts. As a hitter, he’s batting .510 with 20 RBIs, eight doubles, one triple and three homers, including two in a 6-2 win against Pasco on Thursday. UCF may have recruited Heinrich as a two-way player, but he wants to be a power-bat first baseman for coach Terry Rooney.
“As a freshman, it was intimidating that I could be playing Division I ball,” Heinrich said. “As I got older, it got less intimidating and I realized I could be doing that. I like to think of myself as a power bat or a pitcher on the mound that can win the game, too, and just come through under pressure. But, as a team as a whole, we’re all leaders, not just one of us.
“And we really want to get into the postseason.”
Indeed, River Ridge (13-4, 10-2 Class 5A-District 8) hasn’t made the region tournament during Heinrich’s tenure. In fact, it has been a decade (2004) since the Royal Knights last got out of the district tournament.
This could be the year the drought ends as River Ridge sits atop the 5A-8 standings thanks to sweeping the season series against Land O’ Lakes and Fivay and splitting the series with Sunlake. And despite a surprising 3-2 loss to Anclote, the Royal Knights expect to be in good shape, if not have the No. 1 seed, at the district tournament at Fivay starting April 21.
“We’re capable of beating any team,” said Heinrich, who helped River Ridge to a 3-2 win against Fivay on Tuesday. “We have good team chemistry, but we really want to get to the postseason. I feel like we finally have a good shot.”
“We’d like to make the playoffs and a district championship would be great,” Homko added, “but if you can just get in the playoffs, good things can happen. We haven’t done much in the past and this might be the year. It’s a culmination of good kids all coming together.”
The Royal Knights also have a good second arm in Tyler Hawks (3.46 ERA, 22 strikeouts; .339 avg., 12 RBIs) and run producers Devon Woodward (.256, 18 RBIs, four HRs) and Gage Ledford (.345, six stolen bases).
“Jason’s a part of a group of kids that have really produced,” Homko said. “We do have a lot of juniors starting, and there’s always a senior entitlement feeling that they should be starting no matter what, but they recognize talent. Jason has been recognized from the start.
“That’s why his nickname has stuck with him for a while.”
Homko adds Heinrich “doesn’t walk around saying I’m Jason Heinrich” and “he’s a very team-oriented person.”
Just one more reason that Heinrich is a baseball-business machine.
“I love the experience and having fun with my friends, but we ultimately want to win states or at least do better than any other prior team,” Heinrich said. “Or at least a title of some sort. We all know when to take it serious and when to have fun. We know what it takes to be successful and to win and we’re going to do just that.”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.