High school baseball state title berths don’t always come off powerful bats or high averages.
In 2004, Cleburne went to the state tournament with a team batting average of .279. In 2012, the same program made the trip to Round Rock with a .259 team batting average.
This is the same program that once in the last eight years has batted .389 and was dropped in the state quarterfinals. Last year, Cleburne batted .315 and was a regional finalist.
With the UIL baseball season beginning Monday, pitching has become a major commodity this season in North Texas.
Cleburne returns its top three starters from last season, including junior ace Dylan Schneider, an all-state selection and Star-Telegram Player of the Year, who posted a 16-0 record last season. Behind Schneider is No. 2 junior Tyler Fowler (11-3), also an all-state selection, and senior spot starter Daniel Richardson (4-1), an all-district honoree.
“You still have got to concentrate on the little things defensively because those are the things that get you where you want to be,” Cleburne coach Ross Taylor said. “Hitting is going to win some games, but defense and pitching are going to win a lot more championships.”
It’s a message with tangible evidence for Taylor, who saw his team fall to Wichita Falls Rider in the regional finals last season after Cleburne posted an uncharacteristic nine errors in a playoff doubleheader.
“We handled it really well until that final day at the end of the regional finals, and it’s like the wheels fell off for us,” Taylor said. “We’ve all kind of scratched our heads all year with what happened.
“Rider is a good program, but they weren’t any better than some other people that we beat along the way, but we didn’t make errors against those other people.”
Mental toughness in pressure situations comes with experience, Taylor said, which is one cure for quelling sudden outbreaks of errors.
It also keeps pitchers in games, and that’s what Arlington Martin senior ace Turner Larkins believes is his biggest improvement as he returns to the mound a year removed from a state semifinal loss.
Over the off-season, Larkins removed the pressure of his baseball future by committing to Texas A&M, which frees his mind to focus solely on a state championship, he said.
And his commitment has been evident to coach Curt Culbertson.
“He’s developed a third pitch and he’s throwing it really well,” Culbertson said. “His dedication and his work ethic has improved so much. He’s in great shape. When your best pitcher is the guy that’s working the hardest, it just brings a lot of other people up.”
Martin, as has been the case for the last five years, will reload more than rebuild this year. It’s a system that is half luck with the kind of baseball pipeline in Martin’s boundaries and some planning in getting younger players varsity experience each year, Culbertson said.
Coach and player alike, however, know the value in experienced returning pitching.
“I think pitching is the main thing,” Larkins said. “You see those teams who get really deep in the playoffs, and they all have good pitching staffs. It’s definitely one of the most important things to have on a team and I’m glad we have it.”