Update: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday: Heritage High defeated Cocoa Beach 4-3 on Wednesday, putting the team one game away from the goal of 14 victories.
Julia Querry sent 4-year-old Brady onto the field after a Heritage High baseball game last week to show her husband, Rob, a blue baseball inscribed with “It’s a Boy.”
For Rob Querry, the Panthers head coach, it was his wife’s announcement to him about the gender of their second child, due in September.
For his team, it was the second step in a process the coach had begun with a comment he made to his players early in the season. Call it motivation.
“If we win 14 games, I’ll let you name my kid.”
A pickle, in baseball terms, occurs when a player gets caught between bases with little chance of making it safely to one or the other.
When Querry made his offer of naming rights to his second child in exchange for 14 wins, maybe it wasn’t a realistic scenario. A year ago, the first-year Panthers head coach led his team to a 9-16 record. He was the third coach in three years for the still-fledgling program that has never won more than half its games.
Fourteen wins would assure the elusive winning season, so maybe it was more safe bet than risk. Now 12-6 with seven games to play in the regular season after Tuesday’s rainout, the Panthers’ visit Cocoa Beach on Wednesday with their goal in sight.
Querry laughed when he thought about the kind of pickle in which he finds himself now. Wife Julia, after all, should play a rather significant role in naming her child, though she did participate in a bit of taunting.
“She would come to practice and rub her stomach and say things like ‘five more wins, guys,’ and I told her she probably shouldn’t do that.”
Not with this team. Aside from that motivation, the Panthers have put their talent into motion. Last week, they won Palm Bay’s spring break tournament. Heritage already had encouragement from a win against perennial playoff team Melbourne and a one-run loss to Viera, ranked third in the state last week in Class 7A.
Pitching likely has been more of a contributor to the turnaround than naming-rights motivation. The team’s earned run average is 2.15, and senior starter Christian Grubb recorded his 100th career strikeout earlier this year. He is at 43 strikeouts for the year with a 1.14 ERA and is one of four senior captains — all of them pitch at least part-time — credited for the success.
Both Grubb and Querry also credited pitching coach Corey Kevlin, along with off-season workouts that included flipping tires and other CrossFit-inspired moves.
“Coach Kevlin’s had a great impact on our pitching,” Grubb said, “(and) the workouts gave us that endurance to push through the season.”
Fellow senior Joe Nelm, who signed with Brevard (N.C.) College in November, shared the feeling.
“It was high-intensity. Our core muscles are made to last,” he said. “We’ve had seven or eight complete games from our pitching staff.”
Querry’s optimism about the team grew with its first two games of the season, a 2-1 loss at Satellite and an 11-1 defeat at Viera.
“We lost both in the seventh inning,” he said. “We felt really good about our team after that second game. Take away one bad inning and we’re playing with them for 6 1/2 innings.”
When Heritage played Viera the second time, the Hawks edged the Panthers, 6-5.
The dramatic improvement in the program has Querry checking his watch several times each day.
“I can’t wait to get to practice,” he said. “I haven’t had this much fun in baseball since sixth grade.”
Maybe that led to the light-hearted challenge to his players. The whole process took a major step last week with the news that it would be a boy. That narrowed down the possible names, and the Panthers made their choice.
“We have decided to name him Benjamin Smalls Querry,” Nelms said.
It combined the names of two characters in one of the group’s favorite baseball movies, “The Sandlot.” In the film, lead character Scotty Smalls shows the boys on his neighborhood team a ball signed by Babe Ruth. The most talented player is Benjamin Rodriguez, and the movie takes off when the signed baseball is lost over the fence of a neighborhood hermit with a fearsome dog.
What does Julia Querry think about all this?
“She’s not too happy with it,” Grubb said, “but she’s all ears at the moment.”
Julia has followed the team closely and has been good-natured about their suggested name.
“I’ll take it into consideration,” she said. Unspoken but nearly audible was a favorite line from the movie. “You’re killing me, Smalls!”
Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_McCallum or at facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum.