With the sun bright above the trees beyond the outfield fence, warmer than the day before, the breeze sweeping across the diamond from the north made for a useful reminder.
It wasn’t June — championship season — yet, even if most signs said otherwise.
On the mound in Orleans, shutdown pitchers dueled. In the top half of each inning, it was Lake Region’s lanky right-hander Matt Messier mixing fire with finesse. In the bottom half, BFA-Fairfax starter Alex Chapman, a lefty, went to work carving the strike zone with his often-devastating curveball.
Batters are one thing. But it was a pitching matchup — Chapman hadn’t allowed an earned run in more than a season and a half; Messier is committed to play for Division I St. John’s next year — that had both aces assuming a playoff mentality after playing out a 2-1 contest earlier this season.
“I’d like to think you approach every game the same, but it kind of gives you a little extra something to chew on during the day while you’re in school or warming up,” Messier said. “Even when you get on the mound, a little extra something. But you still try to keep the emotions as level as you can.”
Said Chapman: “You know it’s going to be a battle that day and you’ve just got to grind no matter what happens.”
It wasn’t the first classic pitching matchup this year in Vermont high school baseball and it won’t be the last. Messier and Chapman are just two of several bona fide No. 1 starters throughout the state reprising their roles from a season ago. There are also the likes of two-time Gatorade player of the year Rayne Supple at Champlain Valley, Mill River’s Lincoln Pritchard, South Burlington’s Connor Bradley and Patrick McMackin, Rice’s Henry Conroy and Will Hesslink.
Elsewhere, hurlers such as Colchester’s Derek Sanderson, Burlington senior Holden Ackerman and Tyler Davis of defending Division IV champion Blue Mountain only add to the list of arms capable of dominating a game.
The carryover from year-to-year makes appointment-viewing possible for fans — there’s little mystery who’s throwing when one contender meets another — and preparation even more obvious for the teams involved.
Take facing Chapman, who leads the pitching staff for the reigning Division III champs:
“The first fastball you see across the plate, swing hard just in case you hit it,” Lake Region coach Eric Degre said after the teams’ May 14 contest. “After that, then you always have to be ready for a fastball. You can’t be thinking curveball, because if you are and it’s a fastball you’re in trouble.”
Against Messier, whose fastball can hit 90 on the radar gun, it’s a similar drill:
“In a two-strike situation, just battle. Fight off pitches. See if we can’t drive up that pitch count any way we can,” Fairfax coach Mike Brown said. “He was incredibly efficient in Florida and today was more what it can look like as the pitch count rises, you get a couple guys on, and all of a sudden a base hit turns into the start of a big inning.”
And what is it like to take the ball knowing that your team is not only relying on you but expecting you to put them in position to win?
Rice coach Jamie Merchant, who has a dominant pair of juniors in his rotation, said it’s a matter of wanting that sensation.
“It’s a really nice thing to try to go out there and be the guy for your teammates,” said Merchant, who starred at Rice and the University of Vermont before pitching in the Houston Astros organization. “Hitting is fun, but you only do that every two or three innings. Pitching, you can go out and have a huge impact right away.”
With the playoffs beginning next week, here is a look at some of top arms scattered throughout the state:
South Burlington senior
•Now in his fourth year on varsity, Bradley’s season to date includes 48 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings with an ERA hovering around 3.06. His three-pitch arsenal (fastball, changeup, curve) typically translates into Ks in the scorebook. “I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher but he’s definitely more of a strikeout pitcher than other guys we’ve had in the past,” Rebels coach Luke Goyette said. “He’s a super special kid.”
With McMackin, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bradley forms a 1-and-1A rotation that has South Burlington in the mix yet again. “It’s basically which one is feeling the best, healthiest, ready to go,” Goyette said. “This year I don’t know that it’s one over the other.”
•Chapman, a three-sport athlete for the Bullets (soccer, basketball), has stitched together another stellar season even with a more measured workload: He’s 4-0 in 33 2/3 with 62 strikeouts to just nine walks. There are no doubts of what his bread-and-butter pitch is — it’s the sharp curveball that leaves most batters shaking their heads. “I can honestly locate that a little better than my fastball,” Chapman said.
The veteran ace plays the hook off of a fastball, a developing changeup and, as he toyed against Lake Region earlier this month, “a makeshift little cutter” that gives him another look against right-handed batters.
•Before ending up the tough-luck loser after twirling a complete-game three-hitter against Colchester on Thursday, the 6-foot-1 Conroy was unbeaten (5-0) with a 1.36 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings. Somehow, that improved on his sophomore campaign (1.46 ERA, 43 strikeouts, 35 innings).
An outfielder when he’s not on the mound — “He can fly, he’s really good athlete,” Merchant said — the righty has a fastball with movement in the mid- to upper-80s that he has paired with a slider more efficiently than before. “He’s thrown a lot more strikes this year. Last year he had really good stuff but he used a lot more pitches in his outings,” Merchant said.
•The other half of the Green Knights’ junior duo, Hesslink’s only blemish en route to building a 6-0 record is a no-decision in an extra-innings defeat against Champlain Valley. Otherwise the polished southpaw, whose emergence last year (three playoff wins) helped Rice end a 50-year title drought, has been nearly untouchable: 42 2/3 innings, 68 strikeouts, 10 walks, 0.47 ERA.
An accurate, low-80s fastball allows the junior to own both sides of the plate, setting up an effective slider and a changeup that might be his best pitch, Merchant said. “He uses all his stuff all the time. He’s not going to get into a groove where it’s all fastballs. He can throw all three pitches over the plate, which makes him really effective against anybody.”
South Burlington senior
•Perhaps the most imposing figure of anyone toeing the rubber in Vermont, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound McMackin relies on a lively, mid-80s fastball — and usually to great effect for the Rebels. How much does his go-to pitch move from A to B? “I don’t even like playing catch with him — you shouldn’t have to concentrate that much on the ball to play catch,” Goyette said. “It’s impressive.”
McMackin’s regular season line includes 32 2/3 innings, 40 strikeouts to 17 walks and an ERA a shade over 3.0. The key to keeping teams honest against that fastball, Goyette said, “is keeping his arm on time with his lower half and if he does he’s usually in the zone. He’s got to throw strikes”
Lake Region senior
•In the discussion as one of the state’s hardest throwers, the 6-foot-5 Messier’s evolution as a pitcher won’t be down to his potent fastball. Honing his secondary pitches, a curve and flexible changeup — he uses either a circle or split-fingered version “depending on moisture or how it feels or however it’s coming out, he said — will make him an even more dangerous pitcher at the next level.
“He’s a student of the game. He wants to get better and wants to learn how to be better,” Degre said. “I’m pretty happy with how he progresses.”
Mill River senior
•Last June, Pritchard’s arm helped deliver the Minutemen their first state championship for any boys program in 20 years — he earned 10 of their 17 wins. The strikeout machine hasn’t missed a beat in 2015, torching the MVL for 70 strikeouts and a 0.9 ERA in 42 innings. Pritchard (7-0) mixes up grips and locates a low-80s fastball well along with a slider and change.
“He’s put a lot of work into this, well-schooled, a lot of work at camps and so on,” Mill River coach Gary MacDonald said. “I think an air of confidence comes over the team (when he’s out there). “We’re our best team defensively and confidence-wise when Lincoln’s pitching.”
Champlain Valley senior
•The top gun in a deep, talented stable at Champlain Valley — another Redhawks pitcher, Will Potter, tossed a perfect game earlier this month — Supple is more than a year removed from committing to Wake Forest. An 87-89 mph fastball is the foundation of a three-dimensional repertoire that includes a curve and change. In three seasons, his ERA is a paper-thin 0.65 — 0.72 in 39 1/3 innings this year with 60 strikeouts.
“Rayne’s ability to throw all three pitches for strikes and to locate has been a major part of our focus this year,” CVU coach Tim Albertson said. “He has continued to work on his strength as well as situational baseball.”