By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — PENDLETON — Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the first 13 years of the Nick Muller Memorial Baseball Tournament is that no team has repeated as champion.
But Pendleton Heights has come tantalizingly close.
The defending champion has won two of the past three title games — and lost the 2012 final by a slim 6-5 margin against Alexandria. Still, second-year coach Travis Keesling — who went 6-0 against Madison County foes in his debut season — is taking nothing for granted.
“Any one of these teams could win on any given day,” he said, calling the parity in this year’s field “crazy.”
“There is so much talent this year, and everybody’s got it,” Keesling continued. “It’s going to be an exciting tournament.”
Despite losing four seniors from the everyday lineup and the top two pitchers from the rotation, the Arabians again are among the favorites.
And one need look no further than the heart of the lineup for the reason why. Hulking senior Hunter Cook hit seven homers and drove in 56 runs over the past two seasons and again serves as the centerpiece of the offense.
“Hunter is swinging a good bat right now,” Keesling said. “Hopefully, we can continue to hit throughout the lineup to protect him.”
That lineup got a bit of a boost with the healthy return of lead-off man Thomas Hall.
The junior outfielder hit .367 with one homer and 18 RBIs last season, but was limited to just 16 games because of a broken wrist. While no slouch on the base paths, Hall lacks the traditional speed profile for a player at the top of the batting order.
But his .484 on-base percentage more than makes up for it.
“We still haven’t found a ‘true’ lead-off hitter,” Keesling said. “But (Hall) gets on base, and that’s what you need most of all from that lead-off guy. Having him back is great.”
Especially because so few Arabians are returning to familiar roles this spring.
The graduations of Cody Altherr, Augdan Wilson, Kurt Talbert and Brogan Gary took a bite out of the batting order, and 2013 Muller MVP Taylor Rogers also graduated after a season in which he went 4-2 with a 2.19 ERA in 44 2/3 innings.
Altherr (4-4, 3.03) was Pendleton Heights’ No. 2 starter, but returning seniors Austin MacMillan and Justin Kirkpatrick combined for four wins and pitched to ERAs under 3.00 in a combined 42 innings last year.
Promising junior Quentin Miller — who threw just 4 2/3 innings at the varsity level a year ago — joins them at the top of a staff that might not designate an ace.
“We may not have a No. 1 this year,” Keesling said. “We may have a lot of guys that we use in a rotation.”
That’s in keeping with the general theme of the Arabians’ season. Adapt, adjust and move forward.
Players such as Spencer McCool, Noah Etchison, Devon Bretz and Austin Ellingwood have new or expanded roles this spring, but the expectations remain the same.
“At Pendleton Heights, we just reload,” Keesling said. “There’s no rebuilding. These guys gotta step in and take care of business.”
Baseball preview This is the last story in an 11-part series previewing the local high school baseball season in advance of the 14th annual Nick Muller Memorial Baseball Tournament. To read previous installments in the series, visit www.heraldbulletin.com.