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Nobody can stop Big Red, Toronto

FOLLOWING THROUGH — Steubenville’s Clayton Criss singles against Indian Valley in a Division II district final on Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew Grimm)

If you want to know what consistency means, just look up Big Red and Toronto baseball.

Fred Heatherington’s Steubenville squad and Brian Perkins’ Toronto club are that definition, as both teams are back in regional action this season.

In recent years, it should be no surprise to anyone from the area that these schools make it this far. Solid pitching, steady lineups, veteran mindsets and winning attitudes are what drive them to success and consistency.

The only thing that might be a little shocking is how Big Red is doing it this year. It has won 18 of its last 19 contests, and most of them have not even been close. It won a district title 10-0 and 13-3 in the semifinal. It dominated Minerva in the sectional final, 18-0.

It’s more than just catching lightning in a bottle, but how is it doing this so easily?

Well, one thing is Steubenville is used to blowing big and/or late leads and losing. It was the recipe for why it went 2-5 before its latest run. I witnessed arguably the worst defeat in that span.

Steubenville led 8-0 after one inning against Wheeling Park at home. Then, the Patriots won 18-12, mostly thanks to a 10-run third frame. That had to be the lowest of the lows. Before that, Morgantown came to Steubenville and swept Big Red, 7-4 and 11-0. It also led late in New Philadelphia before falling in the bottom of the seventh.

At that time, Big Red was 2-4 before a doubleheader the following Saturday. It lost the first contest but won the second.

That’s when the season turned, somehow. Maybe it’s as simple as what Heatherington was preaching all season long: Energy.

Big Red definitely brought energy in its next contest, a 5-1 victory over Edison, which lost in a Division III district final, on April 16. From there, it’s been mostly winning.

Also, don’t forget about how it snapped an early three-game skid on April 8 against Catholic Central. Big Red won, 8-7, after trailing 7-4 to begin the final inning. That 2-5 mark could have been a lot worse.

Big Red’s offense was going to eventually break out at some point. Scotty Mitchell keeps progressing as the leadoff hitter, and it comes after taking over the reigns from Gino Pierro. Multi-hit games and solid defense at second base are common.

Dom DeFrances batting second and Niko Kausky batting third represent a solid one-two threat, but the most dangerous hitter has been Clayton Criss. As the cleanup hitter and starting catcher, he leads his team every game. Nobody out-hustles him, and he’s been smoking the ball ever since taking a foul ball off his eye in the OVAC tournament.

The other pieces in the lineup include Quinn McCoy, Calvin Bickerstaff, Carlo Biasi, Ethan Duggan and Luke Zorne, who is perfect batting ninth. He’s an extra leadoff guy down there with speed. J.T. Thompson and Caesen Sutton have contributed off the bench, as well.

Pitching was a big question throughout, as Big Red struggled at times with Bickerstaff injured. Dylan Cunningham is a great late-inning pitcher and wasn’t too shabby in earlier innings. Kausky is a hit-or-miss. He started during that 18-12 defeat but threw a one-hitter against Edison. Sutton has been a late surprise, including the district semifinal victory.

With Bickerstaff back, the rotation is definitely solid again. The same could be said for Toronto getting its ace back late in the season in Nate Karaffa.

The senior star has been battling injuries all season long, and it began in August right before football kicked off. He partially tore his hamstring and returned for the most of the second half of the season. In basketball, he was a Division IV co-player of the year.

Despite late success, he wasn’t able to pitch early on. When finally healthy enough, his first start was a one-hit shutout against Catholic Central in the OVAC Class 2A championship on April 30. He threw another shutout in the district semifinal against Hiland.

Oh, and when he wasn’t pitching during the district championship on Wednesday, he cranked a two-run homer and played solid defense at shortstop. He did commit a throwing error late, but nobody’s perfect.

Having a healthy Karaffa back is one of the reasons why the Red Knights are in the regional tournament for the fourth straight year. It’s not all Karaffa, though.

A.J. Clegg and Tristan Thomas proved on Wednesday that Perkins has other arms not named Karaffa. There are a host of other pitchers if need be, but those look to be the top three options as of now.

As for the lineup, a foundation was built around timely hitting, speed and some pop. Karaffa is the No. 3 hitter, but opponents cannot sleep on Nick Sninchak, the cleanup man. If you want proof, he lined a two-run single Wednesday after Strasburg intentionally walked Karaffa. Or, how about when he hit a solo homer in the OVAC final to kick-start the offense? Sninchak enjoys batting fourth and gets ticked off when opponents put Karaffa on for free.

The Red Knights can make anybody pay if they are given an extra out. They are very patient and will wait to get their pitch to drive. Don’t sleep on guys like Kobe Herrick, Lucas Gulczynski, Clegg and even No. 9 hitter Brendan Matyas.

During the games I’ve covered, once Toronto gets the big hit it needs, it doesn’t look back. Sninchak’s home run in the OVAC final, Karaffa’s two-run bomb on Wednesday and Zac Berger’s insurance solo HR in the district semifinal on Monday are just a few examples. If and when the Red Knights get that jolt, they will not let it go.

Steubenville and Toronto are currently on streaks that don’t look like they will end in the regional tournament. Granted, the teams they’ll face also are perfect in the tourney so far. But, there’s something about Big Red and the Red Knights right now that is different from a season ago when both failed to make state.

It has to be pitching. Great pitching leads to success in baseball, no matter how good the offense is. As long as Bickerstaff and Karaffa keep being the aces and the others continue to pick them up when called upon, fans better start buying tickets and booking hotel rooms for Akron.

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