Bats heating up at just the right time for Parkview

LILBURN — Long before the 2014 high school baseball season began, Parkview coach Chan Brown insisted this year’s edition of the Panthers would be radically different from previous teams.

And for most of the season, that has pretty much been the case, with a deep pitching staff and a solid defense being perhaps the biggest keys in the Parkview’s run to a fifth straight region title in the state’s highest classification.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Brown said of his team’s hitting. “Going into (the season), we knew we had a young, inexperienced line-up. … But we knew if people did what they were capable of doing, it was going to be a productive line-up. “I think last year at this time, we had 43 home runs (as a team). Right now, we’ve got 24. But right now, I don’t know the exact number, but our doubles are up. We’ve worked extremely hard all year long on improving our swings and improving the path of the bat through the (strike) zone longer. … (The players have) really bought in to what we’re trying to do.”

Still, while the home run numbers are still lagging and both pitching and defense remain strong, Brown’s team has begun to look more like the same old Panthers (29-5) during the Class AAAAAA state playoffs, especially the most recent two rounds.

Of those 24 homers, 10 of them have come during the postseason, including four in a quarterfinal sweep of Coffee County that saw Parkview erupt for a combined 24 runs.

Add in 12 doubles and a .328 postseason average, some 13 points higher than the regular season, and the Panthers have been able to string together several huge innings.

And those outbursts have come at the most opportune times.

A three-run rally in Game 1 of the first-round doubleheader against West Forsyth allowed Parkview to turn that game around and win en route to a three-game victory in the series.

A seven-run fifth inning and nine-run sixth in the second games of series against Walton and Coffee, both of which helped the Panthers shake off early-inning dry spells for come-from-behind wins that completed sweeps of the series, are also part of five different innings of three runs or more during the playoffs.

Those rallies have also helped cement what has always been a strong team chemistry, which in turn has helped hitting become contagious.

“I think everyone’s getting along much better, and we’re kind of locking in together,” said junior catcher/designated hitter Austin Biggar, who is hitting .324 with two homers and 16 RBIs for the season. “And I think in all the games we’ve been playing, everybody’s seeing the ball better. Definitely when we have one of those big innings, the rest of the games kind of feeds off of that.”

Granted, half of the team’s postseason homers have come off the bat of Isiah Gilliam, who leads the team with nine round-trippers and 32 RBIs for the season.

However, the recent offensive explosion has hardly been a one-man show, and much of the damage has come from what would’ve seemed like the most unlikely sources at the beginning of the season.

For instance, Biggar has seen his batting average rise some 20 points in the playoffs, and trails only Gilliam and Michael Craig for the team’s lead in postseason RBIs with six.

Meanwhile, Craig has also seized his opportunity, raising his average more than 20 points driving in eight runs in the postseason in his first season since assuming the starting centerfield role.

“For me, it’s more of a confidence thing,” said Craig, who is hitting .366 with one homer, 15 RBIs, a team-best 33 runs scored and 10 stolen bases on the season. “I’ve been playing behind (Baltimore Orioles minor-league prospect) Josh Hart the last three years, going into the year, I probably didn’t have the (necessary) confidence level. But I finally found that about halfway through the year.

“For me, and I think for a lot of the guys, hitting is mental, especially in the big innings, and especially at the top of the order. Every time (junior second baseman) Daino (Deas) gets on, I get on, and we all kind of feed off each another.”

And other players getting their first chances to contribute have come through, such as junior David Draper’s first career varsity homer that came during the nine-run eruption against Coffee.

But perhaps the most unlikely source of offense has come from Jordan Kelly, whose role was expected to be far more heavily-weighted towards the mound than the batter’s box at the beginning of the season.

The senior left-hander has thrown 13 1/3 innings this year for the Panthers, posting a 1-1 record.

But with increasing playing time, sharing time with Biggar and Gilliam as a designated hitter and first baseman, he’s made far bigger contributions with a bat in his hands than even he could’ve imagined.

He is currently tied with Biggar and Craig for the team lead with a .444 average during the playoffs, which has raised his season average to a team-best .423.

“I get that every day from my teammates and friends,” joked Kelly, who also has two homers and eight RBIs on the season. “It’s crazy. I would never have expected to be where I am right now, and I couldn’t be where I am without my coaches. … If you would’ve told me I’d be hitting like this at the beginning of the season, I’d have just walked away.

“I was playing behind Jarrett Hood and Sam McCoy last year and (Oakland A’s prospect) Matt Olson the year before that. It’s a hard role to fill, but I guess it is what it is. … I know I’m not a bomber or anything. I just look to get singles, doubles, whatever I can get.”