Players and coaches on the Free State High baseball team admitted they’d like to see more of a spark from their offense this season.
The way Cody Kukuk pitched on Friday, however, the Firebirds could have bunted every time they stepped to the batters box and still had a chance to win.
Kukuk tossed a gem — a complete-game, seven-inning shutout in which he allowed only three hits, three walks and struck out 10 — and the Firebirds cruised, 5-0, over Raymore-Peculiar (Mo.) in the River City Festival at Free State.
“I was just trying to keep the ball low, get my offspeed in and get ahead in the count,” Kukuk said.
Kukuk’s precise pitch location induced 10 groundouts. Combine those with 10 strikeouts and a double play, and that was every out Free State forced. Raymore-Peculiar didn’t put a single ball in play in the air.
“I think that’s just kind of an anomaly. I’m not reading much into the fact that there were no flyouts,” Free State coach Mike Hill said, before briefly pausing and cracking a smile. “But I’m OK with that, certainly.”
Hill admitted he thought of going to the bullpen in the final inning, but when Kukuk continued to pour in strikes, Hill wasn’t about to deny the junior left-hander his first shutout of the season.
“The velocity, frankly, in the seventh (inning) was the same as it was in the first (mid-to-upper 80s, occasionally 90-91 MPH),” Hill said. “His ball wasn’t elevated late. If the ball gets up, mechanics change, velocity goes down. But he was in command of the game, so we went with him.”
And Kukuk’s defense more than backed him up. The Firebirds didn’t commit an error.
Kukuk received flashy defensive support in the top of the fifth inning when junior Colin Toalson made a play that was tailor-made for a spot on “Baseball Tonight’s” Web Gems. When Raymore-Peculiar’s Paul Sappington hit a ground ball up the middle, Toalson drifted to the ball from his spot at shortstop. His momentum turned him around, but that wasn’t a problem. Toalson spun around 360 degrees, regained his footing and fired to Michael Lisher at first for the out.
High school players typically don’t flash that sort of range or make that kind of throw.
“I was just trying to help out Cody (Kukuk) any way I could,” Toalson said. “I saw it off the bat and made the best play I could. I was thinking it was going to be up the middle. I was just trying to get there and make a play on it.”
Hill marveled at Toalson’s defensive highlight from the dugout.
“We’ve had some awfully good baseball players here, infielders in particular,” Hill said. “That’s as good a play as I’ve seen.”
Free State took a 2-0 lead when Ryan Scott singled to right field, plating Toalson and Adam Petz.
A Kukuk single scored Connor Stremel in the third inning to make it 3-0. Kukuk went 2-for-3 at the plate.
The Firebirds provided insurance runs in the sixth when Bo Schneider scored on a passed ball, and Toalson hit a sacrifice fly.
Free State came up with eight hits, but Hill said he’d like to see more production.
“When you’re pitching it the way we did and playing good defense, you don’t need to score a lot, but the offense was a little bit stale today,” Hill said. “What the kids need to understand is we need to put games away early with our offense. We’re not blowing things open.”
The Firebirds will play their final game in the festival at 11:30 a.m. today against Rogers (Ark.) Heritage at Hoglund Ballpark.