Even when the Benton bats don’t deliver a clutch hit with runners on base in a particular inning, more often than not, the Tigers get another chance.
For a lineup that’s led by the heart of the order that includes Cameron Horton, Aaron Sheppard, Jaret Gill and Branson Woodward, they’ll usually deliver when they get another another chance.
Benton (18-8) started the season 6-6 but has won 12 of its last 14 games as the Tigers have climbed to No. 3 in the latest LHSAA power ratings.
“I think we’re right where we want to be,” said Benton’s coach J.D. Stephens, who added that the Tigers could play second- and third-round playoff series at home if they remain in the top four seeds. “We had been getting timely hits, but we didn’t do that (Tuesday in a loss to North DeSoto).
“But a coach wants to have those opportunities. And the more that Horton and Gill and Woodward and those other guys get those opportunities, the more comfortable they’ll get.”
Horton is the cog to the lineup in the three hole, tied for an area-leading five home runs with a team-high 23 RBI and a .362 batting average.
“I had really high expectations for me and this team,” said Horton, a UL Lafayette signee. “The team overall is meeting my expectations.
“I’m not having the year I thought I was going to have, but it’s still pretty good. We’ve had some runners (in scoring position this past week) where we’ve struck out, so we need to get better at executing with runners in scoring position.”
Gill, who hits in the five hole, has had a hot bat lately to pull his average up to .386. He credits the coaches with aiding in adjustments to his swing.
“I had to level out my swing and had to keep my hands still … which has led to better bat head contact,” Gill said. “I’ve got to work on not my pulling my head out.
“We’re pretty much a band of brothers and have tons of confidence in each other. We know if one of us fails or doesn’t get a job done, the guy behind us.”
If pitchers navigate through Horton, No. 4 hole Sheppard (11 RBIs) and No. 5 hole Gill, they’ll have to see Woodward, who’s batting .315 with 13 RBIs and 19 runs scored.
Woodward battled a knee injury that forced him to miss a majority of this past season, but he said he’s enjoyed being healthy so far – knock on wood.
“I’m glad to have played the full season, and I’ve had an OK year,” Woodward said. “The season’s gone great so far, and as a lineup, we’ve executed at times and then sometimes we haven’t.
“I think it’s fun hitting behind those guys. Sometimes they clear the bases for you, and then sometimes there are a bunch of guys on.”
Benton is averaging nearly 6.5 runs per game in no small part because of the top and bottom of the order.
Leadoff Wade Grubbs (.358 average with 21 runs scored and 15 RBIs) and Tanner Craft (.323 average with 14 RBIs) set the table.
And guys like Josh Scherer (16 RBIs and 16 runs) and Tyler Stephens (19 runs scored) help turn over the lineup from the bottom.
“You have those guys in the middle and then Grubbs gets on in front of them and Craft is unnoticed in the way he moves runners over,” Stephens said. “Everybody plays their role … and the bottom of the order rolls the lineup order, too. Scherer struggled early, but he’s driving the ball now and getting on base.”
It all supports a pitching staff led by Sheppard, who is 6-2 with an 0.81 ERA and 55 strikeouts. He catches other pitchers like Jackson Rutledge (4-1, 1.59 ERA) and Craft (3-0, 2.49), sometimes providing small adjustments without coaches using a mound visit.
“Our main goal is to be more consistent, throw more strikes and get ahead of hitters,” said Sheppard, who also shares catching duties with Craft. “Most of the year we have been consistent, but when you throws balls and walk batters, that’s when you get into trouble.
“We know what we can do (as a team), we just haven’t done it yet. We’re getting wins when we’re not really playing at our best, but when we get there, it’s going to be exciting and fun.”
Benton advanced to the quarterfinals the past two seasons, but these Tigers want to punch their first ticket to Sulphur since they’ve arrived.