With more than 1,500 fans in attendance, it was one of the largest crowds to watch a high school baseball game in Arizona. It was the first round of the annual Cleats National Invitational tournament, with two nationally ranked teams facing off.
Both teams were starting their ace pitchers, a pair of seniors who had both signed with major Division I colleges and earned reputations for bringing 90 mph heat. There were so many scouts, "You couldn't even get to the snack bar," said Horizon High (Scottsdale) coach Eric Kibler.
And with all of this serving as the backdrop, Tim Alderson did the unthinkable. He walked a batter.
"The way that their bench reacted, they sort of went crazy," said Alderson, the Horizon righthander who issues free passes with the regularity of solar eclipses. "I had a perfect game going through five innings, and even I didn't think it was going to end by me walking somebody."
Alderson grimaced as a 3-2 fastball missed outside, and Bishop Gorman High (Las Vegas) shortstop/righthander Taylor Cole took his base. It was the first walk Alderson allowed this year, snapping a string of 34 consecutive innings without one, dating back to his junior season when he racked up 122 strikeouts and eight walks. As a senior, he had walked two with 60 strikeouts against some of the best competition in Arizona's largest classification.
"He was mad at himself," said Kibler, whose Huskies were ranked No. 11 nationally. "But come on. We have to have reality here. He's a power pitcher that throws three to four pitches for strikes. At any level, you're thinking, 'How long can he keep this up?' It's a ridiculous stat when you think about it.
"I don't know of any pitchers that have his command."
That's something Kibler has played a major role in. His pitching philosophy is simple, yet rarely employed, and you'll ask yourself why the next time you're watching a game and pleading for a reliever who can find the strike zone.
Kibler, in his 27th year as a head coach, orders his pitchers to work exclusively from the stretch until they reach their senior seasons, when they can pitch from the full windup if they choose. It sounds like a simple adjustment that should not lend drastic results, but Alderson is one example of how effective it can be.
"When he came here, like most guys, he pitched out of the windup and (his delivery) was all over the place," Kibler said. "I always start pitchers out in the stretch because it's the simple movement, and when they wind up they're all over the place and can't handle the intricacy of the windup. It's three movements versus one."
Alderson adopted his approach, reluctantly at first, when he agreed to simplify his delivery as a freshman in 2004.
"I didn't understand it at first, but after a couple of bullpens, we talked about how so many high school pitchers have trouble working out of the stretch, maintaining their velocity, their breaking stuff isn't as sharp and their command isn't as sharp," he said. "So why worry about changing things? Just stick with one motion."
As a sophomore, Alderson's fastball was already touching the high 80s, and he racked up an 8-1, 0.13 record as Horizon's most successful pitcher in 2005, when the Huskies won the Arizona 5-A title. Alderson threw a three-hitter against Hamilton High (Chandler) in the championship game, striking out 11 in five innings.
He was chosen for the Aflac Classic following his 8-3, 0.95 junior season and had a tough decision to make last summer while playing travel ball and trying out for USA Baseball's junior national team.
Hard Habit To Break
He liked the simplicity of pitching exclusively from the stretch, but he had been told by others that he could throw harder from the full windup. They also said he could be limited to relief roles in college and professional baseball if he didn't pitch from the windup.
And while Kibler defends his philosophy with an analytical approach, breaking down the movements of the delivery, Alderson chose to stick with it for a less scientific reason.
"I'm really superstitious," he said with a laugh. "If it's worked, I am going to stick with it."
Alderson said he tried throwing from the windup once last summer and felt comfortable, but chose not to abandon what has helped him become one of the most accurate amateur pitchers in the country.
He needed just eight pitches, seven of which were strikes, to work a 1-2-3 inning of relief at the Aflac game in August, and he held down the back of Team USA's bullpen in Cuba a month later at the World Junior Championship. He made four appearances for the junior team, which defeated Cuba and brought home a silver medal, striking out 11 with one walk in eight innings.
He's improved his circle changeup and added a two-seam fastball to his arsenal, giving him four pitches that he shows deft feel for. Though he repeats his delivery, it isn't picture-perfect. Kibler describes it as "herky-jerky," but that doesn't seem to make a difference in how, or where, his pitches wind up.
Alderson has committed to Oregon State but isn't likely to make it out of the second round of this year's draft, and he is expected to sign. He says he's willing to adjust his approach depending on what the coaching staff of his next team recommends, but there are certain things he plans to adhere to, such as his many other superstitions.
Each morning of a game, Alderson eats the same breakfast (Raisin Bran and yogurt) and lunch (tuna on wheat), and he always eats a banana–but only in his car in the school parking lot with the windows rolled down–before going to class. He drinks a Red Bull at the same spot in the bleachers before batting practice. He hits in his sweat pants with his hat always turned to the back.
When the game starts, it's just the next part of the routine. Stretch . . . Set . . . Strike.
AROUND THE NATION
• Calallen High (Corpus Christi, Texas) received a major boost when Kristian Bueno returned from a hamstring injury against King High (Kingsville, Texas) in a 14-1 win. The senior lefty threw a no-hitter with eight strikeouts in five innings, and dovetailed that outing with five innings of two-hit ball in a loss against Robstown (Texas) High. Texas' reigning Class 4-A champions were 24-4, and with Bueno back alongside ace righthander Ryan Duke, were poised to defend their title. "We've made a few errors that worry me, but otherwise I feel pretty good about the way we've been playing," coach Steve Chapman said. Duke, an Oklahoma signee, had completed all eight of his starts this season, going 7-1 with 100 strikeouts and 10 walks.
• Orlando's Olympia High won the 16-team Orlando National Classic behind wins over Pasco High (Dade City, Fla.) and Madison High (Vienna, Va.). The event's marquee matchup occurred in the semifinals, when Madison, ranked No. 14 in the latest BA/NHSBCA Top 50, defeated No. 5 Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High 4-3.
"We'd been looking at that (possible matchup) for a while, hoping that would happen and the fact that both teams were ranked, that doesn't happen that often," Madison coach Pudge Gjormand said. "From the first minute both teams stepped on the field, you could just see it in everyone's face. It was cool that the top team in Virginia and the top team in Florida were matching up. It had a national feel, which is hard to create."
Madison senior righty Jason Farley was strong on the mound, keeping the Warhawks within striking distance until the bottom of the seventh, when Madison senior center fielder David McIntyre laced a two-run double to right-center field to end the game. Madison senior righthander Sam Gilbert injured his knee, tearing his meniscus in the seventh inning of the loss to Olympia. The Penn signee had surgery April 20 and was expected to return for the playoffs.
• No. 46 American Heritage High (Plantation, Fla.) junior lefthander Ryan Kahn and junior first baseman/lefty Eric Hosmer combined on a one-hitter to lead the Patriots to a 4-3 victory in the championship game of the Sarasota Classic. American Heritage junior second baseman Austin Yager was named the tournament's most valuable hitter.
• Parkview Baptist High (Baton Rouge, La.) head coach M.L. Woodruff won his 500th game. Woodruff, who has a record of 500-130 in 26 seasons at the helm at Parkview, has coached the Eagles to five straight Louisiana 3-A titles and nine overall since 1986.
• Tennessee's top teams have been difficult to decipher, as many of the Volunteer State's preseason favorites had yet to separate themselves. The club that had compiled the most impressive resume entering May might have been Murfreesboro's Oakland High, which knocked off 2006 state 3-A champion Knoxville's Farragut High twice on its way to winning the Warrior Spring Classic in Riverdale, Tenn. Oakland needed six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning before taking the championship game 13-12 in extra innings over Battle Ground Academy (Franklin, Tenn.).
P.J. Pope, Oakland's senior center fielder, was batting .350-2-21 in 55 at-bats, Memphis signee Marcus Barnes was batting .451-6-29 and junior first baseman Tennyson Dodd was hitting .456-5-18 in 57 at-bats.
"All of these juniors and seniors have played a lot since they were freshmen and sophomores," said Oakland coach Mack Hawk, who compared this year's squad to Oakland's 1999 team that featured Brennan King, a second-round draft choice of the Dodgers, and Georgia Tech standout Jeremy Slayden on its way to a final No. 9 ranking. "There's probably not as high a talent level as the '99 team, but they're right there close with them, as far as the way we play together."
• A preseason ranking wasn't enough to intimidate Nate Kerkhoff. He took the mound for Blue Valley (Kan.) High in its season opener against No. 39 Maize (Kan.) High, and pitched a complete game shutout in a 2-0 victory. He gave up two hits, one of which was an infield single, and struck out four in the outing. It was his third career shutout. Blue Valley improved to 7-0.
"I was nervous and excited," said Kerkhoff, a junior lefty who was 3-0, 1.30 with a save and 27 strikeouts overall. "It was the first time I got to throw 100 percent for more than two innings but I was also excited because I knew it would be a good game."
• The top two teams in North Carolina squared off in the championship game of the Shelby Easter Tournament, and the highly anticipated matchup lived up to its billing. East Rutherford High (Forest City, N.C.), a 2-A program, proved its mettle by knocking off previously undefeated and No. 3 ranked South Caldwell High (Hudson, N.C.) 2-1. East Rutherford junior catcher Michael Milam took the first pitch from South Caldwell senior lefty Madison Bumgarner over the 380-foot mark in right-center field for a game-winning home run. East Rutherford senior righthander Ryan Leach, who like Bumgarner has committed to North Carolina, matched his more ballyhooed counterpart throughout the game, pitching at 88-92 mph while Bumgarner, a cinch first-round draft pick, was up to 95 mph. East Rutherford moved into the Top 50 ranking at No. 40, while South Caldwell slid to No. 11.
Contributing: Nathan Rode.