April 6, 2010 10:14:00 AM
HAMILTON -- Dylan Earnest had an edge on Austin Welch going into the season.
The Hamilton High School senior knew he would be a fixture on the mound and in the field for the Lions.
Meanwhile, Welch, a sophomore, had no idea what to expect entering the 2010 season.
A year ago, he was still trying to find himself and to mature into his body.
"He was short and kind of chubby," Hamilton coach Lewis Earnest said. "This year, he just shot up and got fast. He is a lot more athletic than he was last year."
Welch''s transformation isn''t complete, but through 12 games he has shown he is more than ready to contribute to Hamilton''s run to a Class 2A state title.
Both players delivered key performances Thursday. Earnest had 13 strikeouts in a complete-game six-hitter, while Welch had three hits and five RBIs in a 5-1 victory against Bruce in a key divisional game.
For their accomplishments, Earnest and Welch are The Commercial Dispatch Prep Players of the Week.
Earnest continued his solid all-around play Monday in a 10-2 victory against Hatley that helped Hamilton improve to 11-2. The left-handed ace went 4-for-4 with three singles and a solo home run to raise hit batting average to .525.
On the mound, Earnest, who has signed to play baseball at Itawamba Community College in the fall, is 5-0 with two saves and a 0.22 ERA. He has 67 strikeouts and six walks in 32 1/3 innings.
Earnest''s performance against Bruce was the fifth time in six games he has struck out 11 or more in a game. He struck out five in two innings against South Lamar.
Earnest said his breaking ball was working especially well against Bruce. He credits a busy offseason for helping him to keep his arm in shape so he could be ready for the start of his senior season.
"So far it has been my best season," Earnest said. "I just hope I can keep it going."
Earnest said he wants to develop better command of his changeup. He also hopes to increase his velocity to help the Lions prepare for a postseason run.
Coach Earnest said Earnest hasn''t had to use the changeup as often because he has been so dominating. He said the Lions aren''t going to slow Earnest down to make it easier on hitters.
"He has been pretty much lights out," coach Earnest said. "He has run on his fastball and he has a pretty good changeup that sinks. When he is throwing his curveball well, it is a good one."
Earnest said Hamilton isn''t going to let up against any opponent as it chases its dream to win a state title.
"We just have to keep working hard and try to work harder than we have been doing," Earnest said. "We are playing pretty good ball right now, so we have to keep it up."
Welch, who went hitless against Hatley, entered the week hitting .538 with three doubles and 12 RBIs. His hot start has forced coach Earnest to find a place for him in the lineup. It also has attracted the attention of his teammates.
"He just kind of came out of nowhere," Dylan Earnest said. "We weren''t really expecting a 10th-grader to come in and be hitting .500 in the middle of the season."
Welch, who also plays quarterback on the football team, credits coach Earnest for changing his batting stance. He said he now has a wider stance and has lowered the bat to his shoulder in an attempt to throw his hips at the ball, which allows his hands to come in a shorter swing.
"I couldn''t hit any inside pitches," Welch said of his old swing. "It is a lot simpler swing. If you stride any, you''re just picking up your front foot and putting it right back down. You just try to throw your hands at the ball and the barrel (of the bat) comes through (the hitting zone)."
Welch never envisioned the change in batting stance would work so well or that he would make such an impact this season. He said he had a lot of problems hitting the ball at the junior varsity level.
"I could not get the ball in play and I struck out quite a bit," said Welch, who has struck out only twice this season. "Working over the summer and getting bigger has helped me out a lot."
Coach Earnest said Welch''s maturation gave him a chance to earn playing time at the varsity level. He said injuries and sickness to other players allowed Welch to start at second base, and his hitting ability has helped him become a fixture in the lineup.
"I sure didn''t expect to be moving him up into the fourth and the fifth hole," coach Earnest said. "He always has been pretty confident. I remember watching him in Little League. He was always one of the better ballplayers. When he got to seventh and eighth grade, he hit that awkward stage, and now he has come back out of it where he can be more athletic. He just makes us that much better."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.