WENDELL — The summer months provide a perfect atmosphere to unwind, enjoy the weather and soak in a lethargic game of baseball.
That does not apply to just fans of the game. Members of the East Wake baseball team – playing for a team in the Central Carolina Scholastic Summer League that is unaffiliated with the school’s varsity program – also cherish the chance to take the diamond without the persistent pressure to pull out a win.
“It’s a lot looser in summer ball,” East Wake coach Derek Matthews explained. “We have more fun in summer ball because we don’t have to be as serious. We’d love to win every game, but I love to see them work out more in different positions.”
Matthews, now in his third summer coaching an East Wake team in the CCSSL, believes the whole point of summer ball is experimentation.
“I do a lot in the summer time that I wouldn’t do in the regular season,” Matthews said, “because, obviously, as soon as the season starts, you’re playing to win. In summer, you’re more or less trying to work everybody out just to see where they can play. A lot of people are playing positions they’ve never played before.”
For example, rising junior Davis Cockrell, a member East Wake’s junior varsity squad in the spring, worked out at first base when usual starter Eric Hasbrouck missed an early game for football camp. Rising sophomore Peyton Creech, normally an outfielder, also played a couple innings at first base that game.
Players like Cockrell, Justin Torres, Coley Mizell, Kyle Boyette and Landon Cantin make up an ever-fluctuating infield. Other players like Creech, Jason Dean and Marquez Holden are primarily pitcher/outfielder hybrids. It’s a balancing act that Matthews handles well in spite of the various curveballs thrown at him by camps, family vacations and other summer events.
So far, the on-field product has sufficed, according to Matthews’ scrutinizing eye.
“They looked good,” Matthews said. “I try to keep them constantly moving.”
Two factors allow Matthews to be baseball’s version of a mad scientist while competing in the CCSSL: a 12-man hitting rotation and free substitution. These relaxed rules allow the coach to concoct several different lineups per game, without worrying about committing an infraction or fielding an ineffective unit.
The laid-back feel of summer ball could trick a player into thinking it’s all fun and games, but the purpose of CCSSL competition is to lay the groundwork for improvement the following spring. The members of the East Wake team are not fooled, says Matthews.
“They can see it,” Matthews said. “They get it. I mean, we play to win, and they did the other night. We went down in the (top of the) seventh inning and we came up to score two runs on no outs in the (bottom of the) seventh inning to win the game 9-8.”
The East Wake High School team finished 7-7 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference in the spring. To emerge from the middle of the pack and compete for a conference title next year Matthews believes the key is to improve his squad’s pitching, specifically throwing strikes.
More accurate pitching means less walks, which, in theory, means less opposing runners on base. Matthews is confident in his team’s fielding and is willing to sacrifice some heat for more accuracy.
“I’m really trying to work with the pitchers on just throwing strikes,” Matthews said. “If you walk two batters and a guy gets a hit, that’s two runs. Whereas, if you’re throwing strikes the whole time, it takes three or four hits to score two runs. In an average high school ballgame, you don’t get that in one inning.”