BRUNSWICK — Andy Baker loves to promote competition within his own team, but the Middletown baseball coach saw seniors Graham Brown and Luke Pryor taking that competitiveness a little too far last week.
Long after a baseball practice had concluded, Baker found the two in the Middletown gym engaging in a heated game of one-on-one basketball. Sensing the two may very well spend the entire night at school, Baker felt the need to intervene.
“I had to kick them out of the gym,” Baker said Wednesday at Brunswick after the Knights beat the Railroaders 16-3. “Nobody wanted to quit, and each of them wanted the last shot — and it was very intense.”
Brown had just showed off some of that intensity on the mound against Brunswick (2-1) in a situation where one wouldn’t necessarily expect it.
The senior had routinely located his fastball on the outside corner throughout the game, helping him record seven strikeouts over four innings. But with the Knights (2-0) holding a comfortable 11-1 lead with one out in the bottom of the fourth, one of Brown’s pitches sailed outside on a 1-1 count to Brunswick No. 8 hitter Kyle Cruz. After receiving the throw back from catcher Chase Weller, Brown bobbed his head in frustration.
“Graham’s hard on himself,” Weller said. “He’s a competitor. He doesn’t take a play off.”
It’s the kind of attitude that makes Baker’s job as a coach much easier considering younger players on the team tend to follow the lead of established upperclassmen. And if Brown is setting an example for others, the likelihood of Baker pulling other players aside and questioning their intensity or focus diminishes.
“He’s a dream [to coach],” Baker said. “He’s so intrinsically motivated, and he leads us that way. It doesn’t matter the score. [With] his intensity, he plays the game hard until the final out.”
Even after he left the mound, Brown may have turned in the play of the game at shortstop in the bottom of the fifth inning, ranging deep in the hole to make a back-handed stop between short and third and then rifling a throw to first to retire Brunswick’s Matt Walker.
On the hill, Brown allowed just two hits, with two of the runs he surrendered being unearned. Brunswick quickly loaded the bases to start the bottom of the first, with Chase Ebberts getting a single, Tyler Polesky reaching on an error and Walker drawing a walk. Walker checked his swing on a 3-2 pitch to get on base, making Brown visibly upset. But he responded by striking out the side and limiting the Railroaders to one run.
The previous day, Middletown beat perennial baseball power Williamsport behind a stellar pitching performance from Pryor, and Brown said the Knights’ quality of play carried over into their game against Brunswick.
“As a team, I think we progressed,” Brown said. “Today we came out right from the start, had some energy, hit, played [good] defense, so it was a lot better from the day before.”
Pryor struck out 12 batters over 5 1/3 innings against Williamsport, and his performance helped bring out the best in Brown.
“I was talking to him before the game, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do better than you did,’” Brown said.
Brown was just as productive at the plate as the Knights’ leadoff batter, going 3-for-3 with a triple, a double, an RBI and four runs scored. Luke Pryor, Jacob Pryor and Gage Queen each had two hits for Middletown, which received at least one hit from eight players in the starting lineup.
The Knights regularly grind out tough at-bats by fouling off tough pitches, and Wednesday was no different. On one of his hits, Queen won a nine-pitch at-bat with an RBI single to center to start the scoring in a six-run third inning.
Middletown’s offense succeeded against four Brunswick sophomores — Brett Ingram, Adam Watkins, Hunter Jacobs and Luke Walker — who had no varsity pitching experience coming into the game. The Railroaders received two strong outings from pitchers Polesky and Trevor Barnhouse in wins over Clear Spring and Smithsburg, respectively, but Brunswick coach Roger Dawson is seeking depth in the starting rotation beyond those two players.
“We showed our youth,” Dawson said. “We haven’t found our No. 3 [starter], not that we don’t have a couple of our guys who are going to try, but we’re going to have to find a way to get a quality start in that third game [of the] week.”