April 29, 2014 10:45:55 AM
A pitcher knows when he is in the groove.
It doesn't matter if the opponent is unbeaten or if it is a regular-season game or the first game of a best-of-three playoff series. Sure, the adrenaline might pump a little faster against a longtime rival or in the postseason, but J.C. Redden and Trace Lee want you to know they try not to take that into consideration when they're on the mound. Instead, the senior right-handers for the new Hope and Columbus high school baseball teams prefer to turn their focus inward and to do what they need to find their groove so they can settle in and be the difference-makers on the mound.
Last week, Redden and Lee found their zones and were nearly unhittable. Redden allowed just two hits in six strong innings in a victory against previously undefeated West Lauderdale, while Lee opened Columbus' playoff quest in style, limiting Ole Branch to one hit in a complete-game victory in the 1-0 win.
For their accomplishments, Redden and Lee are The Dispatch's Prep Players of the Week.
Redden and Lee have been mainstays in more ways than one for their teams. Redden, who will play baseball next year at East Mississippi Community College, has five doubles and 16 RBIs and plays in the field when he doesn't pitch for the defending Class 5A state champion Trojans (24-3). Despite his contributions in those areas, it's hard to deny pitching is Redden's primary role. Redden is 6-1 with a 2.18 ERA in nine games. He has two complete games and has allowed 34 hits and 15 walks and struck out 41 in 45 innings. As per his pitch-to-contact style, Redden walked none and struck out one Thursday against West Lauderdale (24-1) in a game that was played at East Mississippi C.C. in Scooba. Redden said he enjoyed playing at Gerald Poole Field and having the fans in the bleachers right behind the backstop. He said having the crowd closer to the action forced him to concentrate even more on the hitters.
"The mental aspect of knowing they were undefeated gets you that much more pumped up, so it made the game that much more enjoyable," Redden said. "I felt really calm. I didn't feel like I was that juiced up. I felt like I just needed to go out there and get out of the first inning. If I get out of the first inning, I feel like I can dig in and settle down."
After hitting a batter and giving up a double to Blake Anderson, Redden settled down. He said he still doesn't know how Anderson hit the low, outside changeup he threw him off the left-field wall to make it 1-0. In the sixth inning, Anderson powered a 3-0 fastball over the center-field fence. Redden said that pitch was high and outside and likely would have been ball four. Other than those two at-bats, Redden was pleased with his nearly blemish-free evening.
"I felt like I was hitting my spots and my stuff was pretty good," Redden said. "Like I always say, it is easier to pitch when you know you have a defense like I do behind me to have my back. I was just pitching to contact and letting my defense work."
Redden struck out a season-high eight in a 3-2 victory against Covington on March 15. He also walked a season-high four in that game. But he has settled into a groove lately, walking only two in the last 17 innings, which is a span of three games.
Redden said he has worked with junior Josh Stillman to pick up a slider. He said he has worked in the bullpen in an attempt to get a better feel of the new pitch. He also said he is working in the bullpen to become more consistent with his changeup. He hopes both pitches will be ones he can count on later this week when New Hope kicks off the defense of its state title against Center Hill. Game 1 is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in Columbus.
"I just love the playoff atmosphere," Redden said. "I just know we're going to have a packed house. ... We just have to be prepared like any other game."
Lee also has excelled a dual role for the Falcons (21-6). Lee, who plays shortstop when he doesn't pitch, is hitting .350 with nine RBIs. He is 4-2 with one save a 1.04 ERA in nine games. In 47 innings, he has allowed 32 hits and 20 walks and has struck out 68. He kicked off the season with a five-inning no-hitter in a 16-0 victory against South Lamar on Feb. 28. He also threw a three-hitter in a 6-0 victory against Starkville on April 4.
In his latest gem, Lee credited catcher Gavonta Webb and his defense for helping the Falcons take the first step in the series. He said he has confidence in all of his teammates behind him to make the plays, which he said makes it easier to settle in and find the zone to be dominating.
"The one-hitter doesn't mean very much to me," Lee said. "The one run (in our column) and the zero in the column for the other team is what I like the most. It doesn't compare to the no-hitter because the playoffs are when it really matters."
The no-hitter is one of five thrown this season by Columbus pitchers, either individually or combined. Lee said he, Hunter Mullis, Chris McCullough, Bryan Ezell, and the rest of the team's pitchers feed off each other and have relished being "warriors" and not settling for another playoff appearance. In fact, Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook said last week he believes Columbus' series victory against Olive Branch, the team that eliminated the Falcons from the playoffs last season, is the program's first playoff victory in history.
The significance of that isn't lost on Lee, who will play football and baseball at Northeast Mississippi C.C. in 2014-15. While proud of what he and his teammates have accomplished, Lee said Columbus wants to do more. He doesn't feel there is a lot on his shoulders or any one player on the team because the squad has relied on contributions up and down the lineup all season. In fact, he said the Falcons are playing with a "chip" on their shoulder because this senior-led team wants to take care of business in its final postseason run.
To do that, Lee knows he will have to lead the way on the mound. He credits Jesus Christ for giving him the strength to be a warrior for Columbus and to help set the example his teammates can follow.
"I understand what he has given me," Lee said. "I understand the abilities He has given me and the people he has put around me to make things happen, so when I go out there I am not playing for the Lee on my back, I am playing for the Columbus on my jersey and the Jesus in my heart."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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