In their current setup, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association baseball playoffs reward teams with one dominant pitcher.
The single-elimination format tempts some coaches to use one pitcher to lead a team to a state tournament appearance.
First-year Benton coach J.D. Stephens doesn’t have that problem. As the Tigers prepare for today’s 4 p.m. Class 4A first-round playoff game at home against Salmen, Stephens’ biggest question is whether to start Jordan Shaffer (6-1, 1.18, three saves) or Aaron Henigan (8-2, 2.17).
“It’s very reassuring,” Stephens said. “We’re fortunate to have not just one No. 1, but we have 1A, 1B and 1C. What we’ll do is we’ll do a two-man rotation throughout the playoffs and (Aaron) Sheppard will be the guy out of the ‘pen.”
The trio of Shaffer, Henigan and Sheppard, all right-handers, have combined for 203 strikeouts in 160 1-3 innings, as Benton earned the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
While all three average better than a strikeout per inning, they do it in different ways.
“Shaffer’s a guy who wants to overpower you, but, at the same time, he’s going to be a pitcher,” Benton catcher Andrew Cole said. “Henigan’s going to work backwards a little bit, but he works forward, too. Aaron Sheppard is just as good as both of them and has the potential to be even better.
The Tigers pitchers work in tandem as well as they work off each other. Sheppard may be the bullpen guy for the playoffs, but Shaffer led the Tigers with three saves.
One of those was a one-pitch effort against Airline last week that saved an extra-inning win for Henigan.
“It helps a lot,” Henigan said of the competition between the three pitchers. “It makes me want to throw more innings when we’re losing, or when we’re down. I get a lot of confidence from it.”
As a whole, Benton has gained confidence from the bond between Shaffer and Henigan, who both are juniors.
Shaffer was put on the spot two years ago, starting the de facto 1-4A championship game against Haughton. He endured a rough start, but the lessons learned from that day have turned him into a top starter.
“Having the experience to go out in that game against a really good team helped me along the way, helped me mature on the mound,” Shaffer said. “It gave me confidence from there on out.”
Sheppard, a sophomore, owns the top strikeout-per-inning ratio, fanning an average of 1.36 batters per inning.
Being able to watch his fellow starters helped Sheppard develop quickly.
“I just like to watch how they work hitters,” said Sheppard, who has struck out 67 batters in 49 innings. “They attack them, go after them, throw strikes. When I fall behind, I get in trouble. When I go after hitters, then I’m better.”