BRANDON — This spring the undefeated Otter Valley Union High School baseball team has relied on solid starting pitching, sound defense and timely hitting from the top of the order to the bottom.
The formula worked again on Tuesday, when the Otters knocked off visiting Leland & Gray, 6-1, to improve to 10-0. The Rebels dropped to 6-2.
After a first inning in which senior starter Justin Owen allowed a walk and two hits and an OV error also led to the Rebel run, both Owen and the defense settled down.
Owen allowed just one more hit and one more walk, finishing with a tidy three-hitter. At one point he retired 15 straight batters, and he struck out five. He was helped by an OV defense that finished with just that one miscue.
Meanwhile, the Otters took advantage of five Rebel errors and produced three two-out RBI hits. No. 8 hitter John Winslow finished three-for-three with a triple, three RBIs and two runs, and leadoff hitter Ryan Kelley singled twice with two outs to drive in two runs.
Owen said knowing his team would play well behind him helped him settle down on Tuesday — and that the Otters’ belief in each other is a big part in their success.
“I always have confidence in them. I think that’s why we’re 10-0, to be honest,” he said.
Coach Tim Mitchell has the luxury of alternating Owen and senior Brett Patterson on the mound, and that one-two punch combined with OV’s defense has been effective: The Otters have allowed three runs or fewer in eight of 10 games, and no more than five in any outing.
“We have two pitchers that are doing their job, and everything else falls into place,” Mitchell said.
Meanwhile, the offense is deep and versatile. On Tuesday, Winslow and No. 9 hitter Chad Lonergan combined for four of OV’s eight hits on Tuesday, while the team stole five bases.
“We’ve got speed. Everybody in our lineup can run. Everybody in our lineup can hit,” Owen said.
On Tuesday, the Otters fell behind for just the second time this spring as Owen uncharacteristically had trouble finding the strike zone and walked the leadoff batter and fell behind hitters. And an error put runners on second and third with one out.
Catcher Thomas Roberts picked off the runner on third for the second out, but cleanup hitter Drew Barnum’s single plated a run. Wade Beattie followed with another hit, but Owen worked out of trouble with a strikeout.
Owen also fanned the first two hitters in the second inning, but gave up a single to the No. 9 hitter and walked leadoff hitter Zach Wilkins for a second time. But Owen got out of the jam by getting Cory Nystrom to ground to Winslow at second base, who stepped on the bag for the force-out.
That out began the run of 15 straight Owen retired. Two were strikeouts, and five were caught on the fly, only one hit hard, a liner to Lonergan in center in the fourth. The other eight were grounders fielded cleanly by Patterson at third, Jim Winslow at short, John Winslow at second and Kelley at first. Owen hit a batter with two outs in the seventh, but that was it.
Owen said he felt stronger as the game went on, and that remaining calm when he did not feel his best early on was vital.
“I actually sped up my delivery a little bit, got in a rhythm, and it started from there,” he said. “The curve ball was the biggest thing today, throw strikes with that and keep the hitters off balance, and that’s what created the pop flies and groundouts.”
OV took the lead in the second after hard-throwing starter Barnum struck out the first four hitters he faced. Right fielder Shane Quenneville singled with one out, and with two out Owen reached on an error that moved Quenneville to third. After Owen stole second, John Winslow singled to center to make it 2-1.
In the third, Patterson bunted his way on, stole second and scored on a throwing error to make it 3-1. OV added two more unearned runs in the fourth. Roberts reached second base on an error and scored on another John Winslow RBI hit. Winslow stole second and third and scored on Kelley’s two-out infield single, and it was 5-1. Barnum threw four innings, striking out six and walking none while allowing six hits and no earned runs.
The Otters added their final run in the fifth off Wilkins in relief. Winslow tripled to deep left and scored on a Kelley single.
Owen said the Otters have enjoyed their successful spring, which they have built on the momentum of their D-II semifinal appearance in 2012.
“The confidence is definitely there,” he said. “Everyone just gets along on this team, and we all have dedication. We’re all out here after hours.”
But Mitchell said the Otters also know challenges lie ahead, in the regular season and in a playoff field that will include now-undefeated Burr & Burton, 2012 finalist Missisquoi, and defending champion Vergennes.
“Hit me up on June 13, 14 and see what I say. I think we’re good,” Mitchell said. “But as coaches we’re still not happy. There are little mistakes out there. There are still things to improve on.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.