Pitching-deep 13s hope to keep summer going at World Series

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Honestly, those Natchez 13-year-old Dixie Boys All-Stars couldn’t have done it without badminton birdies.

That’s right. Birdies.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Badminton birdies are about as common in baseball as banana peels and Britney Spears CDs. But there’s a trick to it that can really help hitters handle breaking balls, and a steady dose of it at the state tournament may have helped the Natchez team against the junk.

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When you throw a birdie, it tails down and away just like a curveball, and it helped the All-Stars win the state championship last week in Hattiesburg. Now they are in the World Series in Jackson, Tenn., beginning Saturday with a 2 p.m. first-round contest against Tennessee.

&uot;What happened was the kids were trying to jerk everything,&uot; Natchez head coach William Barnes said. &uot;We put the bat on the ball, but we were trying to jerk that outside pitch, and it was a two- or three-hopper to third base. We tried to make them wait on it a little bit more. It seems like our team hits the fastball pretty well, but you get somebody up there throwing 55 or 65, it keeps us off balance.&uot;

The trick worked, especially late against Oak Grove’s pitching staff, but the All-Stars have found a little groove at the plate since the start of the state tournament. While they’ve never proclaimed to be a power-hitting team &045; pitching and defense has been their strength &045; the Natchez team scored 53 runs in seven games.

Most of them came courtesy of timely hitting and aggressive baserunning which have become the team’s trademark so far this summer. The only power source is big Dustin Carroll, who has maybe five or six all year dating back to the regular season.

&uot;I guess all the way through the all-stars we’ve been up and down,&uot; Barnes said. &uot;Most of our runs are singles and doubles and driving runners in. To get a big inning, we’ve got to have three, four or five key hits. We’re starting to hit a little more consistent now and hit and run &045; different things like that. We averaged eight runs a game, which ain’t bad for the state tournament. We got some key hits when we needed them.&uot;

A hopping lineup, in turn, will help a deep pitching staff that’s been much of the key for the team so far this summer. Depth helped the team have Carroll &045; the team’s hardest thrower &045; available for that second game of the state championship in its seventh game of the tournament, the most games played of anyone there.

While Carroll may be the hardest thrower, the team had probably three of the five hardest throwers at the state tournament in Carroll, Matt Barnes and Ryan Ratcliff. It’s a group that can throw almost as much gas as the14-year-old state champion Natchez All-Stars last summer with Benji Maher, Timmy Foster and Corey Walker.

The key, however, is the team can go with some offspeed pitchers whose styles are totally different. And through all seven games last week, the team didn’t have to use the services of Jesse Morrison, the team’s starting catcher who is no slouch on the mound.

&uot;The biggest thing about going to the World Series is finding out what pitching style works best against what team,&uot; William Barnes said. &uot;I think the key to us now is pitching the right kid against the right team. Some teams have trouble with fastballs, and some teams have trouble with curveballs. It worked out for us in the state tournament. But if any pitcher goes out there and struggles, we’ll pull him.&uot;

The hardest part will be getting familiar with the competition once everything kicks off Saturday. The tournament is a 12-team field with 11 state championship teams and the Madison County, Tenn., host team, and the winner of the Natchez-Tennessee game plays the winner of the Florida-Alabama game Sunday.

It’s really the first time this team has earned a berth in the World Series. Ten of the players were on a coach pitch team that went to the World Series five years ago where it didn’t have to win the state tournament to qualify.

&uot;Really, it’s unchartered waters,&uot; William Barnes said. &uot;They’ve been focused pretty good. The main thing I told them is not get too wide-eyed. It’s another tournament. If you’re batting .500 all year, you don’t have to hit .800. We’ll try to play hard but not get out of our game. But no matter what happens, these boys are winners. Only one team out of each state makes it this far, and that’s a heck of an accomplishment.&uot;