CARY, N.C. — Chaminade Prep flew cross country Tuesday, from Canoga Park, Calif., to Raleigh-Durham, N.C. On Wednesday, at what the players’ bodies thought was 9 a.m., the team took the field against Florida powerhouse Flanagan High in the National High School Invitational.
“It’s like March Madness,” said Chaminade starting pitcher Tommy Costello. “One loss, and you’re done.”
And while teams are guaranteed four games in four days, the draw is single elimination — lose and you can’t win the championship.
The situation was perfect for coach Frank Mutz’s approach to the batting order: The first batter of the game was Blake Rutherford, an American Family Insurance ALL-USA Preseason selection.
The senior center fielder is perhaps the top position player in high school. He’s on the Team USA under 18 squad, and his combination of power, speed and pure hitting ability has plenty of Major League Baseball franchises salivating at the chance to draft him this June away from a commitment to UCLA.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Rutherford said of bypassing college to start his pro career.” I’m just going to focus on this season, and hopefully win the NHSI. Then we have the Boras Classic, and then the state championship. Hopefully, that’s enough to get me drafted. If not, I’ll go to UCLA.”
MORE FROM NHSI: Huntington Beach’s Hagen Danner is man to meet
Rutherford, whose OPS topped 1.300 last season, seems to be the prototype three-hole hitter. He makes contact, drives the ball and hits line drives. But Rutherford is the best hitter on the team, Mutz reasons, and there’s no reason to wait around to get your best hitter to the plate.
When it comes to plate appearances, five is greater than four. Four is more than three. There are plenty of advanced metrics in baseball, but sometimes, the math doesn’t need to get any more complicated than that.
Mutz moved Rutherford to leadoff this year. Hitting behind him is Nick Kahle, a power-hitting catcher who would likely hit cleanup in a standard baseball lineup.
“It’s been paying off for us,” Mutz said. “You’re going to play 30 to 40 games in a season. That’s 30 to 40 more at-bats for him. It’s also 30 to 40 more at-bats for Nick. If you think about that, that’s another 10 or possibly 20 home runs for us, another 10 to 20 doubles. It does work.
It did in an opening-round victory against Flanagan (Pembroke Pines). Rutherford hit the third pitch of the game —producing a line drive, of course — to right field for a single. Kahle followed with a towering fly ball to left. Rutherford was rounding second when the ball cleared the wall. He twirled his hand overhead, making the umpire’s signal for home run, then crossed the plate for the game’s first run.
In the second inning, Rutherford came to the plate again. He drove another pitch to right for his second single of the game. Chaminade added another run that inning and went on to win the game, 3-1.
Chaminade faces Walton (Marietta, Ga.) in Thursday’s quarterfinals at a more West Coast-friendly time of 4:30 p.m. ET. Walton is ranked No. 16 in the Super 25 and is coming off a 10-0 victory against Bingham (South Jordan, Utah) on Wednesday.
“I love hitting leadoff,” Rutherford said. “I start everything off. Usually it means I get one more at-bat a game. That was the main reason for the move, but I really don’t mind it.”
Rutherford is used to pitchers working around him. He’s a patient hitter who draws a large number of walks, so the change to leadoff hitter didn’t produce any culture shock. “I take the same approach —hopefully, I get on base every time,” he said.
The drawback to putting your big guns in the top two spots is that it means fewer runners on base to drive in. That hasn’t been a problem for Chaminade, so far, however.
“What’s been great is that the bottom part of the lineup has been getting on for us,” Mutz said. “(Rutherford and Kahle) have been hitting with guys on base a lot of the time.”
Sure enough, after the first inning, Rutherford and Kahle’s plate appearances featured a total of six runners on base.
The top four batters in Chaminade’s lineup each came to the plate four times, meaning that Rutherford would have had his extra at-bat, regardless of whether he hit first or third Wednesday. Over the long run, however, the strategy will give him an extra time up enough times to pay off.
Plus, even though the strategy didn’t give him an extra cut against Flanagan, it helped Chaminade score immediately, a critical factor in a tournament such as the NHSI.
“That’s everything,” Rutherford said. “We had to come out and get off to a good start, especially against a really good team like Flanagan. For us to jump out 2-0, I knew that was going to be enough to settle our starter in nicely.”
“Things are going good,” he continued. “I’m feeling confident about my performance, but more important is how my team’s doing. That was the main goal of the move—getting the team off to a good start, every game.”
Let Rutherford hit early and often. Sometimes, the best coaching ideas are as simple as that.