Catawba with a Good Friday against Carson-Newman

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2014

SALISBURY ­­— Catawba catcher Jon Wallace is a talented impressionist and offered his imitation of a Craig Brooks fastball.
“Pow!” yelled Wallace, sounding like a cannon blowing away a significant chunk of a fort.
One place where gas is still cheap is Newman Park. In fact, the gas offered by Brooks, a junior who owns a blazer of a fastball, is absolutely free.
Brooks gassed Carson-Newman for seven innings on an overcast Friday that finally turned to rain, got some help from another wonderful catch in center field by Blake Houston, and beat the visiting Eagles 6-0.
This is the final weekend of the SAC regular season. Friday’s victory kept Catawba (27-16, 20-7) tied for first with Wingate. Two games are scheduled today at Newman, starting at 1 p.m. — weather permitting.
It was the 10th straight mound victory for Brooks (10-2), who has a 9-0 record in SAC games.
“To my view, he’s the pitcher of the year in our league,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “That’s no disrespect to anyone else, but he’s done all you can ask a guy to do.”
Brooks was a good two-way player as a freshman and saved a game in the D-II World Series.
He was literally unhittable early in his sophomore year — five relief appearances, no hits, eight Ks — when an injury ended his season as far as pitching.
He’s returned as a starter this year — even better than advertised. He leads the SAC in strikeouts (86) as well as wins, and as a bonus he’s batting .355.
“No, I didn’t really see it coming,” Brooks said. “Not after I started the season 0-2.”
What has to be disconcerting to hitters is that Brooks looks like a normal guy. It’s not like he’s 6-foot-6. The Catawba roster says he’s 5-11, 185, and even that might be generous. He’s like a right-handed Ron Guidry or Billy Wagner.
“Umpires always ask before a game what pitches a guy is going to be throwing,” Wallace said. “With Craig, I tell them it’s going to be fastballs. He looks like he’s a buck-seventy-five, so they’re always surprised to hear that until that first fastball comes in — and pow! He’s got crazy velocity, one of the best fastballs I’ve ever been able to call for. Usually when you’ve got a guy down 0-2, you’ll spin something up there, but with Craig, we’ll go fastball even on 0-2. That helps keep his pitch-count down.”
Brooks mixes in curves and changeups, but his nine strikeouts Friday were either produced or set up by fastballs. Pow!
“I was able to get ahead with fastballs,” Brooks said. “Jon and I worked off that.”
Houston, watching from center field, marveled at Brooks one more time.
“It’s a lot of fun playing behind a guy that challenges hitters like that,” Houston said. “I’d say he’s throwing his fastball 85 percent of the time. They might know it’s coming, but they aren’t hitting it.”
Brooks allowed only four singles. He’d thrown 109 pitches after seven, and that was enough.
Michael Trombino, who got help from a 6-4-3 double play, and Ryan McClintock, who ended the game with a strikeout with Eagles at second and third, finished up.
Catawba got two hits each from Ethan Satterfield, Keaton Hawks, T.J. Wharton and Paul Kronenfeld. Houston scored twice.
The Indians gave Brooks early runs to work with. Hawks’ RBI single and Satterfield’s run-scoring bunt made it 2-0 in the first inning.
Kronenfeld’s infield hit drove in Wallace, who had walked on a great at-bat, for a 3-0 lead in the fifth.
Up-the middle singles back-to-back by Satterfield and Wharton in the seventh made it 5-0.
Brooks often plays shortstop when he’s not pitching, but Dylan Richardson stepped in at short Friday, and his loud homer in the eighth closed the scoring.
“The chance to win the conference is still in our hands, and that’s all you can ask for,” Gantt said. “I’m proud of this team, and you can never give up on them. At Tusculum and at Lincoln Memorial they came back from tough losses to win the last game of a series. Against Newberry, we kicked it around one game and looked bad, but we came back to win the next one.”
Catawba will try to win the SAC regular-season championship today, and if the Indians can find a way to get through the SAC tournament, Brooks could be a handful for hitters who haven’t seen him.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans on this team,” Houston said. “And we’re playing with some confidence.”