April 15, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Chris Stratton used a little help from Uncle Charlie on Tuesday night to make things look easy.
The Mississippi State signee struck out 10 in five innings to lead the Tupelo High School baseball team to a 15-0 victory against Columbus in a Class 5A, Division 2, District 4 game at Sammy Fletcher Field.
The victory coupled with South Panola''s 15-5 victory against Starkville on Tuesday helped put Tupelo (19-5, 6-2 division) in the driver''s seat for the district title. A victory at South Panola at 7 p.m. Thursday would give the Golden Wave the district championship.
Tupelo already had built a 3-0 lead against Columbus when it was announced South Panola beat Starkville.
The news didn''t distract the Golden Wave, who tacked on four more runs in the opening frame and cruised to victory.
Stratton made sure Tupelo didn''t have any problems. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-hander used a "wicked" curveball to keep the Falcons off balance. He scattered five hits and didn''t walk a batter.
"I just try to keep hitters off balance with (my curveball) and work in and out with my fastball," Stratton said.
Stratton signed with MSU last November. Last year, he earned all-state, all-district, and all-North State honors after helping lead the Golden Wave to a 32-7 mark and state runner-up honors in 2008. His 10-1 record with a 1.95 earned run average and 98 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings earned high praise from MSU coach John Cohen.
"The thing that stands out about Chris is his advanced, effortless delivery," Cohen said last year. "That will make his adjustment from high school to collegiate baseball seamless. And he has a limitless future as far as his velocity."
Tupelo High coach Gary Enis agrees. He said Stratton has used his curveball effectively all season. He said his ability to spot that pitch makes his fastball, which already is in the low 90s, even better.
"He is just a real competitor for us and has kept us in every game he has pitched in," Enis said. "Throughout his whole career, even as a sophomore, (he has been consistent with his curveball). He has gotten better each year and each time he pitches. I know Mississippi State is looking forward to getting him to pitch."
Columbus (8-13) was its worst enemy. Starting pitcher Nick Durrah walked the first five batters before being lifted for Tyji Hawkins.
Collin Dexter (two RBIs), John Gatlin (three RBIs), Robert Corban, Kirk Graham, and Gabe Richey each had two hits in a 14-hit attack.
Stratton added a triple and Lex Rutledge had a home run for the Golden Wave.
"That was really the first time pitching let us down," Columbus coach Jeff Cook said. "We didn''t come out focused and ready. Tupelo is a good team. They''re not leading the division for nothing."
In the bottom of the first, the Falcons put runners on first and second with one out on singles by Dylan Anderson and Billy Autrey, but Durrah lined out to third base and the Golden Wave turned the double play.
"We hit the ball tonight, but we didn''t put them together," said Cook, who called Stratton "the best pitcher in the state." He said the right-hander can blow hitters away with his velocity or screw them into the ground as they try to hit his curveball.
"He throws strikes, he keeps it low, he keeps his fastball down," Cook said. "He has been in so many big games. He is a competitor and a super kid. I guarantee Mississippi State wishes they had him in the rotation right now. He has a chance next year to step right in and pitch in their rotation."
Stratton knows the transition from high school to Southeastern Conference baseball will be a challenge. He realizes he won''t be able to get away with the same things he does at Tupelo, but he said he is prepared to take his skills to the next level.
"I am going to have to spot it a lot more than I do here," Stratton said. "When I am here I just throw it up there and usually nobody will hit it real hard. When you go to college you have to keep it low because it will go a lot farther than it goes in."
Columbus will honor its seniors -- Anderson, Autrey, Brian Henry, James Mullis, and Austin Stovall -- at noon Saturday before its season finale against Greenville Weston.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.