WALDORF — Like other batters in Catoctin’s lineup during Friday’s state championship game, cleanup hitter Dylan Nicholson choked up on his bat and employed the slash hitting approach the Cougars switched to when the playoffs began.
This method, which increases the odds hitters will produce grounders or line drives instead of pop ups, was the difference-maker that pitching-rich Catoctin needed to make a deep postseason run after offensive woes led to a lackluster 5-6 regular season.
“Our kids nicknamed our new offense come playoff time ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts,’” Cougars coach Mike Franklin said. “We try to bleed you for one run here, one run there, a safety squeeze here, a suicide squeeze there. A seeing eye single there.
“No big shots, usually,” he said. “Except today.”
Nicholson delivered that somewhat unexpected big shot, a towering, tie-breaking three-run homer that cleared the high wall in left-center with ease in the third inning. The blast provided the Cougars with all the momentum they needed to beat Saint Michaels 10-3 in the Class 1A state championship game at Regency Furniture Stadium.
“That just propelled us,” Catoctin senior catcher Dusty Isanogle said. “That told everyone that had nerves, ‘Hey, we got this. We’re winning this ballgame.’”
Getting a stellar start from Maryland-bound sophomore Joey McMannis, who gave up two runs (one earned) on four hits in 4 2-3 innings, and plenty of runs from its rejuvenated offense, Catoctin (11-6) captured its second state crown in dominant fashion.
After Catoctin reliever Ayden Shadle got the game-ending strikeout, Cougars players and coaches dove into a dog pile near the pitchers mound to celebrate the program's second state crown and first since 2013. Even Franklin’s son, Kathan, the Cougars’ bat boy, joined the pile.
“The adrenaline when the last out happened was something I’ll never feel again,” Nicholson said. “It was amazing.”
It was hard to tell this team, which entered the season with high hopes, struggled so much before catching fire in the playoffs.
“This is what we thought we could do at the beginning of the season,” said Catoctin infielder Bryson Cabellero, who had a triple, double and RBI single on Friday. “It didn’t go our way during the regular season, but we came together in the playoffs.”
Pitching sure wasn’t the problem. The Cougars’ staff was loaded with quality arms all season, even though they lost ace left-hander Mason Albright, who opted to spend his senior year at the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida and will likely be selected in this year’s MLB draft. Catoctin had a team ERA of 1.10.
“We’re seven deep on the mound,” said Franklin, who only threw McMannis 10 total innings all season before Friday. “We knew we could pitch, we just couldn’t hit. We were averaging 1.35 runs per game, so we had to go to this [slash] style. It changed our lives.”
Franklin always had hitters use the slash approach with two strikes, using a technique he learned from former Cougars head coach Tom Sherald and former Cougars assistant Phil Caruso (who posed for a photo with Franklin and the state championship plaque on Friday).
Batters put their hands at the top of the bat grip, put the bat’s barrel at the bottom of the strike zone before bringing it to the top of the zone and rolling their top hand to either produce grounders or liners.
But after the regular season ended, Franklin asked his players to use the slash much more often, and they agreed with the switch.
“We implemented the slash every single pitch, not just when we had two strikes,” Nicholson said. “We just bought in and we made it happen.”
Egos took a back seat.
“Some people may say, well that’s not really baseball, that’s not attractive, that’s not long ball, that’s not macho,” Franklin said. “None of our kids were worried about college stats, they weren’t worried about college scholarships, they were worried about team.”
Of course, long balls didn’t become extinct, as Nicholson proved.
“He’ll punish you if you make a mistake. They threw him a fastball up and in, and man did he attack that,” Franklin said “That was over the stadium, it hit that white tent out there. That was special, and the place erupted. I felt like that was what turned the momentum of the game.”
Catoctin also got plenty of production from No. 9 hitter Peyton Castellow, who had three singles.
Continually putting the ball in play, the Cougars put pressure on Saint Michaels’ defense. A pair of Saints errors in the fourth inning helped the Cougars stage a three-run rally that put them in front 8-2.
With the way McMannis was throwing, his velocity hovering around 86 to 88 mph, that’s all the offense Catoctin needed. The right-hander didn’t find out he was starting until about an hour before the game, but he thrives on pressure and saw his location improve as the game progressed.
“He has this nasty two-seam that is just un-hittable, it’s like a lefty’s slider coming in, and nobody can touch it,” Isanogle said. “He was on fire today.”
Lefty JJ Zirkle, who made several fine plays at first base, pitched 1 1-3 innings of solid relief before Shadle entered with one out and the bases loaded in the seventh. The final pitch of the game ended up in Isanogle’s mitt.
“It’s a feeling that I’ll never forget,” he said of the state title. “Fourth year with these guys, and it’s something we’ve always dreamed of.”