Mount Vernon’s Achilles heel has turned into a strength.
Being shutout in the District 5B championship game and held to eight runs in two amateur baseball state tournament games last season seems like ages ago. Through a 12-2 start, the Mustangs have shed the notion it can’t score runs, launching home runs along with any doubts cast on its offense over the fence.
Mount Vernon has seen a spike in production at the plate, scoring 7.8 runs per game and 9.4 in Sunshine League play. It includes four straight Sunshine League games with double-digit runs -- 14.8 runs per game during that stretch -- after it reached double-digits just five times against Sunshine League opponents and six times overall last year. It scored 11 runs in a non-league win over the Yankton Lakers this season, as well.
“(Hitting has) kind of been our Achilles heel,” said Mount Vernon manager Deric Denning, who is one of six Mustangs with double-digit hits. “We’ve always kind of thrown it well in the past few years. Now, we know as long as we can play a clean game on defense and hit the ball like we know we’re capable of, we feel we have a really good shot in any game.”
It hasn’t been just stringing together hits -- though it showed it can still capitalize on a single when Spencer Neugebauer’s 12th-inning leadoff single turned into the winning run against Parkston on Tuesday -- rather has seen a major uptick in the power department.
Mount Vernon has nearly tripled its home runs in nine fewer games. After hitting five homers last year, the Mustangs have gone deep 13 times. Eric Giblin (5 homers this year), Bradley Dean (3) and Neugebauer (2) combined for two homers last year. Denning credits Giblin for staying in shape and the progress Dean made in the batting cage even in a shortened season with Dakota Wesleyan University.
The Mustangs have also been the beneficiary of an earlier start than most amateur teams. It opened its season on May 3 at Lesterville, a 6-5 win. It’s played a league-high 14 games.
“We really started seeing the ball well once we started league play right after that Alex game,” Denning said, referencing a 5-1 loss to Alexandria prior to reeling off four straight double-digit run games. “The more at-bats you can get makes it easier.”
The early start can partly explain its 13-3 win over Winner/Colome, when it hit three home runs and handed the Pheasants its only loss of the season. But it’s also about seeing the ball better and adding a new dimension to a team coming off a 17-win campaign.
“That really helped us and kind of just gave our guys confidence,” Denning said. “We put up runs against some other teams, but when you do it to a team of their caliber, that kind of gets your confidence up, too.”
The confidence exuded and pressure relieved on a pitching staff from a hard-hitting, run-producing Mustang offense goes hand-in-hand. There’s not as much pressing if it falls behind early, evidenced by a June 14 contest against Corsica/Stickney. The Horned Frogs hit back-to-back homers to open the game, but Mount Vernon’s offense guided it to a 14-4 win in seven innings.
Cameron Deinert (16) and Chase Hetland (15) both have double-digit hits to help the offense, while the Mustangs have limited their fielding mistakes to 21 errors and kept their team ERA at 3.00 with 144 strikeouts in 126 innings. Baley Miller (22.2 IP / 4.37 ERA), Dean (23.2 / 1.14), Denning (20.1 / 2.66) and Luke Tiesler (20 / 2.25) have all topped 20 innings.
With the newfound bats, they never feel like they’re out of a game. It’s the benefit of being able to add runs with one swing of the bat and still stack hits on top of each other like when it exploded for six runs in the 10th inning against Parkston on Thursday.
And for a team that lost postseason games in part due to a lack of offense, they’re not trying to deviate from what’s worked.
“I just think we have to stay the course,” Denning said. “As long as we can keep pitching well and playing clean defense, as long as our bats stay where they are, we’ll be just fine.”