GREENFIELD — Robbie Miller calls it his cardinal sin, being “too cute.” When a baseball player fields the ball as if he’s looking in a mirror, waiting for his closeup.
Not quite lollygagging, but not much better either. Nothing fires up the Greenfield-Central head coach more, except maybe strikeouts.
It’s his No. 1 rule: don’t do it.
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“That’s the mentally we’re trying to get these kids at, don’t look cute, just get it done,” Miller remarked. “I don’t care how cool you are. Field the ball and hit the ball. When you try looking cool, you start making mistakes.”
Avoidable errors and struggles at the plate intertwined with inexperience, Miller said, didn’t do the Cougars any favors as the club spiraled toward a 10-18 record last spring.
Unable to harness any consistency, the team finished a frustrating 3-11 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, which placed them dead last. They also racked up 163 combined strikeouts.
Now, a year older as a group with five seniors projected to start this season, Miller has high expectations for improvement, and so do his players.
“We have big plans and statements to make,” Greenfield-Central senior Drey Jameson said. “I think as a team we can go pretty far this year honestly, especially with Spencer (Hert) as the second pitcher or even the first. We just have to get our bats going and do our job on the mound.”
Neutralizing the opposition from 60 feet, 6 inches falls on Jameson, a Ball state recruit, who quieted bats regularly to earn All-HHC honors as a junior.
The ace tossed 42.1 innings last spring with 82 strikeouts and a 2-4 record. His 2.65 ERA was a result of seven quality starts in nine overall appearances as he posted double-digit punch outs in four games.
“Drey expects the best from everybody, and he expects the best from himself. If he sets his mind to something, he normally gets it done,” Miller said. “We’re going to put a lot of pressure on him, and he knows it, and he likes it. He wants it.”
But Jameson isn’t the type of player to hog the spotlight. The preseason all-state selection is the first to acknowledge the rotation’s depth this season, particularly with Hert, a fellow hard-throwing senior that Jameson believes will step up when his number is called.
“I would say he throws it just as hard as me and coming from a lefty, that’s kind of hard to face,” Jameson said. “I wouldn’t want to face him as a hitter.”
Through 27.1 innings a year ago, Hert merely scratched his potential with a 2.30 ERA, a 2-1 record and 51 strikeouts. Up around the upper 80s with his fastball, Hert’s velocity paired with Jameson’s 93-mph heater gives the Cougars a formidable duo.
“Spencer is throwing the ball really well. I wouldn’t even call him 2, I’d call him 1B,” Miller said. “Both of their bats are going to be in the lineup. I know Drey likes throwing Game 2, and I’ve done that with him for two years, but that’s because I like having him in the outfield with a fresh arm rather than a dead arm.”
When Jameson isn’t pitching, he will once again man center field for the Cougars and carry a potent bat from the leadoff spot.
As a junior, the state’s seventh-ranked senior, according to Prep Baseball Report, blasted a HHC-leading nine home runs while driving in 18 runners, scoring 27 runs and hitting .395 to go with eight doubles.
“I don’t really get nervous going up to the plate,” Jameson quipped. “I want to get 12 (home runs), at least, this year.”
Jameson put in the time this offseason toward his objectives, honing his pitching mechanics while training with Justin Wechsler, a former fourth-round pick in the 2001 Major League Baseball amateur draft. He worked with Chicago White Sox scout and local baseball hitting instructor Mike Shirley in Pendleton on his swing.
“Twelve is (Shirley’s) expectation as well,” Jameson elaborated on his magic number for 2017. “I never want to let someone down, so that’s my goal, but I’m not going to swing for them. They come when you take a good at-bat.”
Miller wants all of his hitters to take a similar approach after the team posted a .336 on-base percentage last season. So far, he’s seen the commitment.
“I think we have the talent to do it, but I can believe it all I want. The coaching staff can believe it. The kids have to buy into it, and I think they have,” Miller said. “They’re not satisfied with just competing. You also have to give yourself a chance to win every single game.”
Six returning starters give the Cougars confidence that a turnaround is possible.
Along with Jameson and Hert (.288), who will play first base when he isn’t pitching, junior Braxton Turner is back behind the plate. Senior Tyler Farrell (.294) returns at shortstop, while senior Landen Davis moves into right field.
Sophomore Nick Atwood is at third base after spending time at second base as a freshman, and senior Josh Mundell gives Miller another option in the outfield.
Highly-touted newcomer Adam Hutchison, a 6-foot-3 freshman, will start in left field, and junior Seth Robertson will rotate at first base. Sophomore Blake Wilson is third in the pitching rotation, and Bradley McDowell and Noah Ramsey are the front runners at second base.
“Hutch can hit the ball. That’s one of the guys we were really psyched for this year. I know coach Miller has high expectations for him,” Jameson said. “That’s good. You wouldn’t want anything less than that.
“Last year, collectively, I don’t think we didn’t hit the ball well at all. Even myself, I wasn’t satisfied with hitting .300. We have to be leaders out here and see how it goes from here.”
The Cougars will find out who they are immediately, opening the season last night against Richmond on the road and traveling to Lawrence North today for a doubleheader. They host No. 6 Roncalli in their home opener on Tuesday.
“The thing about baseball is it’s a fun game. You’re going to fail, but it’s how you come back from the failure. That’s not just baseball, that’s life,” Miller said. “You’re never going to have 100 percent success, but how do you handle failure?
“The good thing about us is we have 12 to 15 kids that I know can compete, and I know they’re going to give me everything they can.”
Coach: Robbie Miller
2016 Record: 10-18
2016 Results: The Class 4A Cougars struggled to find consistency last season, finishing 3-11 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference and last in the standings. They reached 10 wins to conclude the regular season, but lost to HHC rival Pendleton Heights in the sectional 10-4.
Key Losses: Tyler Mundell, Drew McDowell, Tate Hall, Chandler Bean.
Key Returnees: Drey Jameson (12), Braxton Turner (11), Spencer Hert (12), Tyler Farrell (12), Landen Davis (12), Nick Atwood (10), Josh Mundell (12), Seth Robertson (11), Blake Wilson (10).