For many high school baseball teams in Arizona, the best way to prevent opponents from rallying is to simply keep scoring runs.
With metal bats, shorter fences and more simplistic pitching approaches than at higher levels, scoring outbursts are typical.
Hamilton, though, is built in reverse, which could play out well come state tournament time — if those pitchers can live up to their potential.
The Huskies may have the deepest pitching rotation in 5A Division I, as regular starters Zak Johnson and Jake Andrews are flanked by Forrest Vanlandingham, Derek Hill and Parker Gallegos.
Last year, Johnson went 8-1 with a 2.73 ERA, Andrews 10-3 with a 3.24 ERA and Vanlandingham 4-0 with a 1.31 ERA. Hill was mediocre in limited innings last season, but already has a complete game one-hitter to his credit this season and hasn't allowed a run in 10 1/3 innings.
Hamilton's team ERA this season is 2.75.
“Pitching’s everything,” Johnson said.
Hamilton is in the midst of the Big League Dugout Invitational, one of the most prestigious high school baseball tournaments in the country.
The setup is similar to the state tournament — particularly if a team drops to the loser’s bracket — because it consists of several games in one week. During region play, teams usually don’t play more than three times per week.
“It forces you to throw more guys,” Hamilton coach Mike Woods said. “You need four starters, usually five starters. It gives some guys some opportunities that they usually don’t get.”
Hamilton won the tournament last year, and the deep rotation was key.
The setup paid off for Vanlandingham last season, who up to that point didn’t have much of a chance to show his pitching prowess.
“He came out and threw a shutout against a team from Utah, and then he closed out the Rocky Mountain game in the championship,” Woods said. “He became our No. 3 guy, and he may not have had that opportunity if we weren’t in a tournament like this.”
Johnson said having capable starters beyond the top two is key once the playoffs roll around.
“It’s very important, especially if we drop into the loser’s bracket,” he said.
Numerous preseason rankings had Hamilton at the top this season because of its pitching. Even though the Huskies lost several potent bats from last year’s 28-5 squad, the return of the frontline starters was enough to make them the preseason favorites in 5A-I.
Johnson pitched in the state championship game as a sophomore, and all four of the starters have been in several meaningful high school games in their careers.
Hamilton has started this season 11-4, although it was on a two-game skid heading into action on Tuesday against Brighton, Colo.
Johnson was beaten by Mesquite last week, and Andrews gave up a walk-off home run to Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, the top-ranked team according to Maxpreps.com, in a 4-3 loss on Monday.
Woods said he is still confident in his pitching, but he knows it’s all about production in the end.
“It’s what have you done for me lately?” Woods said. “We told them it’s a new year. What you did in the past is great, and you learn from it, and it gives you a little bit of confidence. But they still have to go out and do it.”