Evan Steele knew well enough he didn't want to see a curveball in a tough count. The Williamsport sophomore had seen enough of Shikellamy's Kyle Leitzel, even when he stepped in for his first at-bat Thursday, to know it was not in his favor to see that pitch.
So Steele was aggressive in the right-hand batter's box, looking for fastballs early in the count he could jump all over. It was an approach which served him well in Williamsport's 5-3, non-league win over Shikellamy at Logue Field. The Millionaires' outfielder roped a two-out, RBI single in the first inning to give Williamsport a 2-0 lead. And in the fifth inning he jumped on a 1-0 fastball and hit his first career home run, a laser of a three-run shot to left-center field with two outs.
He played a big part in spoiling what was a pretty good pitching effort from Leitzel, the Braves' ace. Leitzel's curveball accounted for seven of his eight strikeouts.
Evan Steele of Williamsport is safe at third base as Shikellamy third baseman Blake Bettleyon fields the throw on a Damone Buxton single in the first inning Thursday at Logue Field. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
"You want to jump on the ball early in the zone," Steele said. "And you want to drive it when you get it."
It was another big day in the story of the sophomore's emergence over the last five games. Since he's been thrust into the five-spot in the lineup by head coach Dave Howe, Steele has flourished. His 2 for 3 performance with four RBIs last night was an extension of the .400 clip he's been hitting since April 26.
In his last five games, Steele is 8 for 18 (.444) with three extra-base hits and seven RBIs. It's corresponded with his move from the nine-hole in the lineup to a more consistent spot as a run-producer.
Howe made the change after watching the middle of his order struggle early in the season. Whether coincidence or not, the Millionaires have averaged 8.4 runs per game over the past five games. In the nine games prior, they averaged just 4.3 per game.
"He's been tremendous. He's been hitting the ball hard in practice," Howe said. "He's putting the ball in play and he's putting it in play hard. So far it's worked out the past five games."
In his first at-bat yesterday, Williamsport had already scored a run on an Ian Dinsmore RBI single to take a 1-0 lead against Leitzel and Shikellamy. Steele then jumped on a first-pitch fastball and drove it between shortstop and third base to score Dinsmore.
He took a first-pitch curveball in his second at-bat before grounding out on a great play by Braves shortstop Nick Dunn. In his third at-bat, with the Millionaires clinging to a one-run lead in the fifth inning, Steele again took a first-pitch curveball before jumping on a fastball down in the zone and driving it over the fence in left-center field.
It gave Williamsport a valuable cushion, especially considering the Braves added a pair of runs in the top of the sixth, including an unearned run. Shikellamy then put two runners on base in the top of the seventh before Gabe Rader closed out the game.
"One pitch hurt us, and it was a good pitch, too," Shikellamy head coach Bobby Felmy said. "It was down, it was a good fastball. He just put a good swing on it and hit it hard. No question it was going out. It was a good hitter putting a good swing on a ball that was down and he lifted it up and out of the ballpark. The worst part is it was a good pitch and he hit it out."
"I want all of the kids to be aggressive like that. I don't want them to sit and take pitches and swing at junk pitches," Howe said. "(Leitzel) had a great curveball and he was a tough pitcher. I want guys to be aggressive and add on to the lead, and Evan is very aggressive."
The offensive outburst from Steele helped back yet another stellar pitching outing from the Millionaires' pitching staff. Three pitchers - Davey Ludwikowski, Noah Esposito and Gabe Rader - combined on a two-hitter. But the pitching has never been a problem from the day the season started.
Williamsport has allowed more than four runs in a game this year just three times, one of which was a win. Ludwikowski allowed just one hit and an unearned run in his three innings. Esposito allowed one hit and two runs in his three innings, and Rader worked around two walks to close out the game as the Millionaires picked up their 10th win of the season. Ludwikowski threw the most pitches of the three with 52 as Howe tried to save some arms for Saturday's Backyard Brawl.
"I actually think the offense is ahead of the pitching now," Howe said. "Davey pitched a beautiful three innings. Noah came in and threw strikes, and Gabe's been doing a fantastic job closing for us. We just have to stop walking that one guy, the leadoff guy, and we'll be OK."
Shikellamy001 003 0 - 3 2 0
Williamsport200 030 x - 5 9 3
Kyle Leitzel and Colby Lahr. Davey Ludwikowski, Noah Esposito (4), Gabe Rader (7) and Damone Buxton. W-Esposito. L-Leitzel. S-Rader.
Top Shikellamy hitters: Jean Turber, 1-3, triple, RBI; Kobe Swanger, 1-3, RBI. Top Williamsport hitters: Noah Esposito, 2-4, 2 runs; Ian Dinsmore, 1-3, RBI, run; Davey Ludwikowski, 2-3, run; Evan Steele, 2-3, home run, 4 RBIs, run.
Pitchers' lines: Shikellamy - Kyle Leitzel (6 IP, 9 hits, 5 runs, 5 ER, 2 BB, 8 Ks). Williamsport - Davey Ludwikowski (3 IP, 1 hit, 1 run, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 Ks); Noah Esposito (3 IP, 1 hit, 2 runs, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K); Gabe Rader (1 IP, 0 hits, 0 runs, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 Ks).
Pitches-strikes: Shikellamy - Kyle Leitzel, 100-66. Williamsport - Davey Ludwikowski, 52-33; Noah Esposito, 41-25; Gabe Rader, 25-12.
Batters faced-first pitch strikes: Shikellamy - Kyle Leitzel, 29-15. Williamsport - Davey Ludwikowski, 13-9; Noah Esposito, 12-5; Gabe Rader, 5-3.
With runners in scoring position: Shikellamy 0-6; Williamsport 3-9.
Runners left on base-in scoring position: Shikellamy 4-3; Williamsport 6-4.
Records: Williamsport (10-4, 4-2); Shikellamy (9-7, 8-4).