St. James baseball looking to bolster title defense bid
LAWRENCE — Notching two wins against 6A opponents was a nice statement for the St. James baseball team as it swept Leavenworth and Shawnee Mission Northwest in its matchups at the River City Baseball Festival.
For the Thunder, the combination of junior Jansen Keyes and senior Matt Eckelman combined for 14 innings of scoreless baseball.
“It’s good to play some bigger teams that are bigger than our school,” junior Jansen Keyes said. “It really helps getting us prepared going to regionals.”
In the first matchup on Thursday, Keyes showed off a stellar performance just like against Bishop Miege a week before, when he pitched three-and-two-thirds innings without giving up a hit.
“He was in the zone a lot more today, and our defense played well tonight,” St. James coach Brian Bucklin said. “Defense played well behind him so that’s the name of the game.”
Keyes put together a solid performance going five innings with five strikeouts and only one walk to his name in St. James’ 9-1 victory over Leavenworth.
But getting the ball over the plate was the big factor for Keyes.
“Throwing a lot of strikes and letting them hit it to the defense, just letting them make plays,” Keyes said.
For a good portion of the game, St. James was hitting Leavenworth starter sophomore James Gladieux well, but the Thunder broke open the game when it batted around in the fifth inning. A string of hits resulted in seven runs and St. James taking an 8-0 lead into the last two innings.
Although the Pioneers grabbed one run, they never came close to the Thunder, which brought in junior Ryan McCourt for the final two innings. Other big contributors included senior Jake Wodtke, who had two hits including and an RBI during the team’s big fifth inning.
St. James busted open the game in that inning, when it mustered seven runs when Leavenworth committed three errors.
“We hit the ball hard all day,” Bucklin said. “We’ve been talking about our offensive approach being aggressive.”
During the Thunder’s second matchup on Friday, Eckelman displayed a sure-fire skill set, allowing only one hit and striking out six Cougars batters in a 1-0 pitchers duel.
“It was probably the best outing of the year so far, so it was fun coming out to KU and do that,” Eckelman said.
Eckelman has been the rock for the Thunder this year, mowing down the competition and providing a steady bat for the lineup.
“He’s carried us a couple times this year,” Bucklin said. “He’s one of the pitchers in the area, that’s for sure. He battled; he throws a lot of strikes. He’s been solid all year, and that’s what we expect out of him.”
St. James was in a pitchers’ battle all day long with the Cougars’ Marcus McNeace, but it managed to scratch one run across when Wodtke drove in senior Austin Murrell for the lone RBI of the game.
Now with two quality wins underneath its belt, the Thunder hopes it can continue settle into its routine for the upcoming regional tournament.
“We’ve moved our lineup a lot in the last four or five games, trying to keep people uncomfortable, but also keep people comfortable all at the same time,” Bucklin said.
The players also want to get comfortable now so they’ll be ready for the impending chance to defend their state title.
“If we lose, we better lose now because I want to get some momentum going into regionals and state,” Eckelman said.