Central Dragons learned to walk before they run

It often starts innocently enough with someone like Ethan Lewis fouling off a pitch or two and working a walk.

Then the fun begins.

A couple of pitches later, Lewis steals second. Then he tags on a flyball and advances to third, finally coming around to score when the throw from the outfield gets away or a groundball or maybe a clean base hit.

“Our team has great chemistry. We always just try to do what needs to get that first run in,” said Lewis, a senior outfielder and pitcher for the Central High School baseball team. “We always try to score as early as we can, whether it be getting those first couple of walks and getting the three or four guy to knock them in or even laying down a bunt sometimes. We always do what needs to be done.”

While working for walks and hitting for power has become the increasing rage in baseball over the last 15 years, Central’s version of Moneyball is a little different, combining patience at the plate with aggressiveness once Scarlet Dragons get on base.

So far this season, it’s helped the Dragons win 24 games in as many starts. Lewis and the Scarlet Dragons will endeavor to complete a perfect season this morning at Penn State’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park when they take on defending state champion Loyalsock in the PIAA Class AA baseball finals at 10:30 a.m.

“I think we put a ton of pressure on the pitcher and the defense, too, because they’re always thinking ‘this guy’s going to steal’ on every pitch or ‘what if I miss it?,’ Dragons junior second baseman Nick Hoenstine said. “I think that creates a lot of opportunities.”

The Dragons enter the title game averaging 11.5 runs per game. They’ve won each of their last two state playoff games by the 10-run rule. That brought their mercy-rule win count this season to 12.

However, here’s the really extraordinary stat: Central has scored 276 runs on only 262 hits.

Central has complemented its hits with 137 walks. Lewis leads the Dragons with 25, and Hoenstine is next with 23. Four more Dragons have walked at least 10 times this season, giving the team an on-base percentage of .515.

They’ve also averaged about one hit batsman per game.

“I’ve always tried to be rather selective with my approach,” Lewis said. “If I see a pitcher throw a lot of fastballs, I’ll try to jump on him early. That’s pretty much how our whole team has been. Coach tells us to be aggressive at the plate, but we take time watching (the opposing pitcher) warm up. If they’re throwing a lot of breaking balls, we’ll take a few pitches there and see what he has to offer.”

Central has a completely different approach on the bases. There, they’ve attempted 124 steals, being successful 102 times. On top of that, the Dragons have 15 sacrifice flies this season.

“We have some all-around good talent, and our speed is one of our things. So we take advantage of that,” Hoenstine said. “A lot of guys use their speed to get extra bases. Fans go crazy when someone goes on a passed ball or we make them have an error.”

In Central’s PIAA playoff opener, a 4-1 win over Quaker Valley, the Dragons had just two hits – they had three walks and five stolen bases in a four-run inning. Central blew open its 14-2 semifinal victory over Northwestern with an 11-run fourth when it had seven hits; the spark was a dropped flyball when two Dragons were tagging to advance. In the quarterfinal win against Franklin, Central scored three or more runs in four of the six innings.

“We always see what we can do in an inning like that. We want to have that big inning and see how long we can keep it going,” Lewis said. “That’s when we score most of our runs.”

It’s kind of the way Central has been playing for a few years now, no matter who the players are. It also kind of reflects the playing style and personality of A.J. Hoenstine, Nick Hoenstine’s half-brother and the Dragons’ coach for the last eight years.

“I always liked a hard-nosed style of baseball. I often kid the kids at the beginning of the year that I led the PSAC in walks, but that’s because I had to take a lot of pitches so our 3 hitter could swing at whatever he wanted to,” the elder Hoenstine said. “The faces change, but the expectations stay the same. The kids understand that.

“Baseball, you can only do so much. You can’t run a lot of plays like other sports. We wanted to have a style that’s a little bit different from other teams, and our kids take a lot of pride in that.”

And they do a lot of work perfecting it. The elder Hoenstine estimated his batting practice pitchers throw outside 80 percent of the time just to get his players used to going the other way, to develop their eye for strikes and not to try to hit home runs. They might work on stealing in different situations. He said he and his staff try to make practices as competitive as possible. If they are working on bunting, pushups or burpees might be on the line for both the fielders and the hitter.

“I think that keeps our practices pretty lively,” Coach Hoenstine said. “Come game time, we want the game to slow down for them and just go play.”

“In practice, we work on it so much, that it’s actually easy. We practice it so it becomes easy,” Nick Hoenstine said. “I think everyone on the team wants to swing at the first pitch and just get ahold of it. But, we know if we take time and have good at-bats, we’ll get on base.”

The approach has several benefits. First, it wears down opposing pitchers, and, in high school baseball, the number of teams that have more than one top-notch hurler are few and far between. Second, the odds of perfect defensive plays are slim, so the odds of success are pretty good, and A.J. Hoenstine will accept some outs in trade.

“If another team makes a mistake or gets lazy throwing the ball around, even if it’s not covering a base, we’re going to make them pay for that. All our guys can do that, and their eyes are always on the baseball,” Coach Hoenstine said. “If they see an inch, the smallest hole in the defense, they’re going to try to take it. Sometimes it might hurt us a little bit, but, more often than not, it’s a big play. In high school baseball, a lot of time that can break the other team’s back.”

It also has helped team morale. Everyone feels they can contribute in some way.

“The biggest thing to our success is that guys accept their role. Sure, there’s going to be maybe three guys that get their name in the paper more than anyone else, but the bottom line is our team winning. The kids have bought into that,” Coach Hoenstine said.

Just the prospect of what Central does creates chances. Opposing pitchers try to be more fine. Fielders are distracted by baserunners. The edge is taken off the important focus needed.

“We’re getting in the pitchers’ heads,” Lewis said. “It’s almost more of a mental game than it is physical. Once you get into the head of an opposing player, that can be the start of their downfall. We try to feed off of that.”

And the Scarlet Dragons have been feasting on the opposition as a result.