Chillicothe baseball Hornets seek slide reversal

New head coach Lisle inherits generally green team after idle 2020

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Chillicothe High School's baseball Hornets, under head coach Joshua Lisle (back, right), were due to open their 2021 season at Savannah yesterday, although the weather and field conditions jeopardized that. The diamond Hornets' home opener isn't to be until Monday, March 29, against Macon.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Just over a year ago, Chillicothe High School’s baseball Hornets seemed poised to make an unexpected 5-15 2019 campaign a blip on the radar with a veteran squad seemingly solid on offense and with very good potential pitching depth.

However, COVID-19 wrecked all that, leaving the 2020 senior class – several members of which had played extensively since they were freshmen - without an opportunity to exit with a third winning campaign in four years.

Since then, in addition to that senior group graduating, Canaan Fairley stepped down from the baseball head coaching post after three seasons (not counting the scrubbed 2020 season) and Joshua Lisle was elevated to the head coach’s spot only a month or two ago.

Since March 8, Lisle and his assistants – including Fairley’s predecessor as head coach, Troy Figg – have worked to get the 2021 CHS club ready in an attempt to keep that 2019 stumble from turning into the unwelcomed kind of baseball slide.

There are a plethora of players – 39 showed up for the start of practices – to work with, including a few who started or played extensively two years ago. However, 15 of the 39 are ninth graders and another 15 sophomores and Lisle estimated, during a chat with the C-T early this week, that about two-thirds of the overall total were not involved in any organized baseball play during 2020.

“Luckily, there’s a group of them that did play last summer,” the new head coach reflected. “That’s helped out a bunch.”

Still, Lisle anticipates over half and perhaps as much as two-thirds of the regular lineup could be sophomores, a projection owing to both the potential and talent of those 10th graders and the lack of numbers among the two older grades.

A third of the anticipated lineup for Friday’s scheduled season opener at Savannah was due to be returning veterans – seniors Mason Baxter and Tucker Wagers and junior Brock Ward.

“Having them back has been a huge help,” Lisle stated.

Baxter is a fourth-year starter who projects as the top starting pitcher and, when not hurling, shortstop.

On the mound in 2019, his 1.44 earned run average was the Hornets’ lowest, as was his opposition on-base rate of .291. In seven mound appearances, he walked a team-low nine across 24-1/3 innings, but did surrender over a hit an inning (25) while posting an 0-4 record.

Then-sophomore Mason Baxter of Chillicothe High School  is about to make contact with a pitch and drive it over the center-field fence at Daryl Danner Memorial Park field during a 2019 Hornets Baseball Classic tournament game against Maryville. The clout was the 2019 team's only home run. After the 2020 season cancellation, Baxter will be back for his senior season this spring on a generally-young CHS squad.

With the bat, his .298 batting average was supplemented by a team-most 12 walks drawn, giving him a very acceptable .423 on-base rate at the top of the lineup, where – with his speed which helped him be the 2019 team leader in stolen bases with five – he projects to be again this spring.

While he batted leadoff as a sophomore, the righthanded-hitting Baxter produced half of the team’s meager six triples or home runs, swatting a pair of 3-baggers and the club’s only “dinger.” With four doubles added on, he had over 25% of the 2019 squad’s extra-base hits.

T. Wagers, whose sophomore brother Max looks likely to man center field and pitch some, is due to handle second base full-time after playing both there and at third some as a sophomore.

While getting into 17 total games in ’19, he amassed only 41 plate appearances and 35 official at-bats with an average of .143. He did draw a handful of walks to lift his on-base rate to .250.

Ward split his time between third base and catcher as a freshman, getting into 20 games, but is the No. 1 receiver this year and will be in the heart of the batting order with sophomore third baseman Brock Miller, Lisle reports.

Two years ago, Ward batted only .233, but did drive in nine runs, only two off the team lead. He’ll be looking to improve his contact rate after having the most strikeouts of any 2019 Hornets batter.

He’ll also need to have a major role in shepherding what, aside from Baxter, will be an almost-totally-new hill staff. Aside from Baxter, only Ward himself (three innings) and senior righthander Landon Swift (4-2/3 innings) have thrown a pitch of varsity-level ball.

Given the overall skew of the roster, most of the pitchers Ward will work with figure to be sophomores, Lisle disclosed.

The head coach admitted, “Seems like we’ve got a bunch,” as he spoke of as many as eight or 10 Hornets being likely to toe the rubber this spring.

“With pitch counts and everything MSHSAA has for us, if they can pitch, they’re going to pitch,” Lisle concedes.

He noted he plans to rotate three guys as his starters – four were vying those spots at week’s start – as much as possible.

In terms of the defensive alignment, Lisle anticipates sophomore Landon Winder playing first base alongside T. Wagers with Baxter – and, when he’s pitching, probably junior first-year player Gage Leamer – and Miller on the left side of the infield.

While M. Wagers is penciled in in center field, fellow sophomores Ruger Cox, Griff Bonderer, and Wyatt Brandsgaard are contending to be on the corners of the garden. When M. Wagers is used to pitch, Bonderer will handle center, the head coach anticipates.

If and when Ward is not catching, Lisle says sophomore Gabe Hansen is the initial replacement, although Leamer and M. Wagers also are learning the position.

“I think our defense looks good,” the CHS coach says of the team’s potential for “picking” the ball.

On the offensive side, while he foresees Ward and Miller occupying the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the order, Lisle believes all of the other slots will have the potential to contribute to the attack, although it might take a while to get everyone enough at-bats to hone their swings and command of the strike zone.

“Our 1-9 look like they can put the ball in play pretty regularly,” the coach stated to the C-T last Monday. “… I haven’t seen too much of a weakness yet. I think we’re going to put the ball in play consistently and move runners and hopefully score a lot of runs.”

He doesn’t commit to playing either a maximum-pressure baserunning style that involves lots of basestealing attempts and extensive use of a bunting game or a “swing-away” style in which movement around the bases comes almost exclusively from the batter putting the ball in play.

“I don’t want to take the bat out of certain kids’ hands,” citing Miller and Ward in particular, Lisle detailed. “I want them to put the ball in play and drive in runs, but there’s a handful of guys we’ll let steal and maybe bunt over.

“It’s just going to be real situational.”

Given Lisle's newness and the 2-years lag in play, projecting opposing teams’ strength is relatively futile this spring, but Lisle agreed that, with the layoff, many teams figure to use the first several weeks of the season trying to get as many players playing time and at-bats as practical and hopefully build toward a more-defined team come late April or early May.

Chillicothe’s baseball schedule has four varsity road games scheduled before a March 29 home debut against Macon at “Chuck” Haney Field in “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium.

Aside from the April 29/May 1 Hornets Baseball Classic, Macon is the only non-Midland Empire Conference team slated to come to Chillicothe this spring.