So many Little League fields packed with so many ballplayers convinced they one day will play in the big leagues.
They grow older, the field expands its dimensions, and the pool of players skilled enough to keep playing shrinks. The pitchers throw harder. The base-runners fly faster, and those with slow bats and arms just a tad short fade away.
Only the very best get to make a varsity high school baseball roster. To watch a game such as Friday night’s Class 6A state quarterfinal at Hoglund Ballpark is to realize just how skilled, how aware, how mentally tough an athlete must be to excel at such a high level.
Lawrence High had to make so many exceptional defensive plays behind a pitcher who made so many big pitches in big spots and battled so hard just to survive Shawnee Mission West, 2-1, on a pleasantly cool night on which the large crowd of spectators was spellbound by the action.
When LHS right-hander Alex Laughlin, such a quiet gentleman off the mound, such a tenacious pitbull on it, threw the game’s final pitch, an 84 mph fastball, for a called third strike, Lions loyalists roared, and so many of those rooting for Shawnee Mission West exited the yard talking about what a great baseball game they just had witnessed.
Laughlin was throwing 88 in the first inning, and as his command and velocity faded in the later innings, his fangs grew sharper. His thoughts were trained where they always are right before the first pitch.
“I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2008, and I always think of her right before the game,” Laughlin said. “It gives me motivation.”
Laughlin’s father, grandparents, sister and girlfriend were there to root for him and his talented fielders.
Laughlin (5-3) overcame a wild first inning in which he walked two, threw a wild pitch that enabled a run to score and was charged with a throwing error, to shut out the Vikings the rest of the way. He pitched much of the night out of the stretch and in grinder mode. His only 1-2-3 inning came in the third. He struck out six, walked five and allowed seven hits.
Nearly everybody contributed huge defensive plays to help him escape jams. Center fielder Ross Johnson threw a strike to catcher Jake Vinoverski for the final out of the first. An inning later, Johnson smoothly fielded a hit and threw behind the runner to nail him at first.
Third baseman Troy Willoughby charged a bouncer and threw across his body in such a smooth, athletic manner for an out, and second baseman Trevor Champagne skidded toward the bag to snare a grounder, popped up and threw the runner out. In the sixth, after Laughlin surrendered a leadoff walk, Vinoverski fired a laser to second to erase the runner.
“Those were all momentum plays that just get me really fired up and help me to compete,” Laughlin said. “And the adrenaline from the crowd helped me to push through it the last few innings when my arm started to get sore.”
Conversations started as to whether Laughlin would have enough to finish what he started. In the dugout, LHS coach Brad Stoll even broached the topic of going to the bullpen, an idea assistant coach Adam Green quickly, emphatically and wisely quashed.