HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Bobcats make quick adjustments at Altoona
ALTOONA — Going from their own tiny sandlot field, and others around the area, to a professional stadium was quite the jump for the Blairsville Bobcats.
The scene at Peoples Natural Gas Field was fitting for Blairsville’s first District 6 Class AA baseball championship, even if the Bobcats weren’t as used to the big stage as their opponent, Mount Union, which was appearing in its 27th district championship game.
“I’m a guidance counselor at the school, so I’d been telling my buddies, ‘I think I’ve got to play counselor a little bit before the game,’” Blairsville coach Mark Zerfoss said. “We got here early so the kids could take it in and get those oohs and ahhs out of their system. It was nice to do some batting practice downstairs in the cages. It got them loose, relaxed. And then they came out here. I told them, ‘Just envision this as WyoTech Park in Blairsville. You’ve got three bases, you’ve got a home plate, you’ve got a pitcher’s mound. It looks just like our field, except we’ve got train tracks out in our outfield and they’ve got a roller coaster.’”
Naturally, though, Blairsville did have to make a few adjustments playing in the 7,210-seat park with an outfield much more spacious than most high school fields.
To start, the pitcher’s mound was notably higher, more accommodating but significantly different, than the tiny bump at WyoTech Park.
“It was way better than Blairsville,” pitcher Reed Ratkus said. “At Blairsville I tend to throw higher than I usually do. Today I kept it down because of the higher mound.”
“We haven’t had that much of a problem throwing off different mounds,” Zerfoss said. “Ours is 10 inches high, which is the minimum it needs to be. It’s definitely different throwing there, then you go up to Homer-Center where the mound is high. … This one isn’t as high as Homer. I know Bobby (Thompson) had a concern with that when he threw at Homer. I want to say this is probably the highest one that Reed threw off of.”
Ratkus settled in to hold Mount Union hitless over the final five innings after giving up five hits and two runs over the first two.
“I don’t think that was affecting him so much,” Zerfoss said.
The most noticeable difference to the game was the spacious outfield. The fences in Altoona are just 325 feet deep at the foul poles, but jut out deeper, leaving expansive gaps of 375 feet in right-center field and 365 in left-center, and going to 405 in dead center. While the bases are 90 feet apart everywhere, that expansive outfield makes for a lot of ground high school outfielders typically don’t have to cover.
“We had them look at the outfield when we were out here long-tossing,” Zerfoss said. “It wasn’t too bad for Lucas (Palmer) in left, because it’s 325 down the line and the fence doesn’t get real deep too quick. Anthony (Faulk) I wasn’t really worried about, with his speed. I was definitely with Colton (McMillan) in right, because it’s 325 down the line, but it almost shoots back at a 45 degree angle and gets deep real quick. So I told Colton, ‘Keep talking to your infielders. Say, how do I look?’ And I told the infielders, ‘Make sure you guys are peeking back and seeing where he is. We don’t want him playing on the roller coaster back there, we want him in this ballpark.’ And they did. We were communicating all game.”
The outfielders’ speed helped cover the space, and Palmer said the well-groomed, flat, natural surface let him run a little more quickly. He chased down a few fly balls, including one near the warning track and another that he had to charge and make a sliding grab.
That was after figuring out the backdrop. Rookie outfielders in the major leagues often cite difficulty tracking balls with the extra decks in pro stadiums compared to the minors, and the effect was the same on the high school players at the minor league park.
“The atmosphere, it makes it seem like the ball goes a lot farther,” Palmer said. “It seems like it, but it doesn’t. It’s different. You have to adjust to it. … In warm-ups I missed one, then I adjusted to it. I straightened it out.”
Mount Union pitcher Cole Boozel brought the velocity seen in a lot of Double-A games, hitting 90 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun and sitting in the high 80s throughout the game. The right-hander was the fastest pitcher the Bobcats said they had faced this season.
“Last year it was close to that, a kid from Bald Eagle,” Palmer said.
“It took us a little bit to get adjusted to it,” Ratkus said, “but as you can see, we got the runs we needed.”