Many consider pitching, pitching and pitching the three most important aspects to winning baseball and location, location and location as the three keys to pitching.
Junior left-hander Garrett Cleavinger, Lawrence High’s co-ace, had no reason to doubt that after painting the Lions into this weekend’s Class 6A state tournament at Hoglund Ballpark with a two-walk, 10-strikeout performance.
“First inning, I knew we were going to have a good day,” Cleavinger said of last Wednesday’s 2-1 Lions road victory against Manhattan. “I knew my command was good, they weren’t hitting it and as long as we could scratch together a couple of runs, I knew we were going to win.”
LHS won despite Manhattan senior Thomas Olson striking out 13 and walking two.
Cleavinger has added a good 4 mph to his fastball since last season, but how hard he throws isn’t as important as where he puts it.
“I can hit my spots a lot better,” he said. “When we played Manhattan, I felt like I could throw it anywhere. I felt good.”
Co-ace Alex Laughlin, a senior right-hander, will make the start Friday for No. 6 seed LHS against third-seeded Shawnee Mission West at 6:30 p.m. Cleavinger sounds just as confident in his teammate as in himself.
“He competes really well,” Cleavinger said. “Nothing stops him. He always throws strikes and does what he needs to do.”
Laughlin, who plans to continue his pitching career at Johnson County Community College, has 20 walks and 60 strikeouts in 49-2⁄3 innings. On the quiet side, he sounds eager to inspire a lot of noise in the stands.
“It’s going to be a lot more exciting, a lot more people there, just a bigger stage,” Laughlin said. “I’m really excited for it.”
Chief rival Free State High pinned LHS (13-9) with two of its losses in games played in front of big crowds, the second in Hoglund Ballpark.
“They learned from the Free State series — where you have a ton of people in the stands, you’re playing a rival, it’s a big game — that you can’t come out and let your emotions get the most of you because that’s kind of what they did,” pitching coach Brandon Johnson said. “They walked people, left the ball up in the zone. I think the Free State thing, even though it’s bad that we lost two games, they learned from that. I think they’re going to do a lot better this go-around with the big crowd in a big game, having been through it. They weathered it. They were disappointed after Free State, which is why they came out last week in Manhattan and did what they did.”
If LHS wins Friday, Cleavinger is slated to pitch Saturday in the semifinal and Jake Johnson is expected to get the start if the Lions play for the state title, also Saturday.
Finesse lefty Cameron Solko, a junior, and freshman right-hander Bryce Montes De Oca will be ready to contribute from the bullpen.
“I think we’re going to have a very good showing from our pitching staff this weekend,” Brandon Johnson said. “Last week in Manhattan was really a product of what we’ve worked really hard on and that’s throwing strikes and being severely competitive on each pitch.”
LHS head coach Brad Stoll said, “I firmly believe both Alex and Garrett will both pitch in Division I.”
Cleavinger said he received a congratulatory email from Kansas University pitching coach Ryan Graves after winning the regional championship.
Helping LHS to win a state title with his work on the Hoglund mound could intensify a mutual interest in the lefty remaining in Lawrence for college.
“It’s nice to stay in town,” Cleavinger said of the state tournament being on KU’s campus. “I pitched there during the River City (Baseball Festival) in our opening game. Great atmosphere. Stands are going to be packed. It’s going to be tight.”
Cleavinger realized he had used a phrase that didn’t bridge the generation gap and quickly clarified himself.
“It’s going to be cool,” he said.