Danville slugging its way to wins

Published 5:10 pm Monday, May 17, 2021

Team tops school record for home runs, sixth on state’s all-time list

Danville’s best sluggers will gladly tell you they’re swinging for the fences.

And why not? Home run power has helped a Danville club that was supposed to make its mark with powerful pitching become the top offensive team in Kentucky.

The Admirals are sending baseballs over fences at a rate never before seen in this area and seldom seen anywhere in Kentucky high school baseball.

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Entering the last two weeks of the regular season, Danville had 60 home runs in 31 games. That’s 27 more dingers than Trinity, the team with the second-highest total, and at least three times as many as any other team in the state.

It’s also the sixth-highest single-season home run total in state history, and it’s a pretty good bet that Danville, which is ranked No. 2 in the most recent statewide coaches’ poll, will be much higher on that list when its season ends.

The six Danville baseball players ranked among the top 25 home run leaders in the state when play began this week say they are driven by friendship, by competition, and by the sheer joy they get from watching the ball fly far, whether they or one of their teammates has hit it.

“If one person hits a home run, we’re all excited, and we want to keep seeing them fly,” said senior Ethan Wood, who is tied with his teammate, senior Christian Howe, for the state lead with 13 homers. “I know me personally, I’m swinging for a home run. Unless there’s a situational at-bat, I’m swinging for a home run until I get two strikes. Two strikes, you’ve got to get a hit.”

Danville (28-3) can certainly do that. This is not a team built for the so-called three true outcomes (home run, strikeout, or walk) that have been both emphasized and derided at higher levels of the game.

Yes, the Admirals lead the state in longballs. And yes, they play their home games in a ballpark that gives up more longballs than most. But they also lead the state in batting average (.333), runs, hits, and doubles, and they strike out in only 17 percent of their at-bats.

But home runs always stand out, and that fuels the friendly competition within the dugout.

“We compete with each other a lot,” senior Preston Barnes said.

For the record, Barnes is tied for third in the state and close behind Howe and Wood with 11 homers. They are followed by three juniors: Brady Baxter (9 HR, sixth in the state), Logan Smothers (7 HR, tied for seventh) and Brady Morse (5 HR, tied for 22nd).

Those six players have accounted for all but two of Danville’s 60 home runs, and they are averaging one homer in about every nine at-bats.

Wood, Barnes, and Howe combined for 27 home runs two years ago on a team that totaled 42 homers — Wood had a team-high 13 — so they were known power threats when the team took the field again this spring after the 2020 season was canceled due the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have a couple of guys that hit a lot two years ago, then you’ve got some guys who just really worked hard over the last 14 months or so since we got shut down. … Then you’ve got a couple guys who have had some surprising power this year,” Danville coach Paul Morse said. “You put all those things together and you’ve got a pretty scary lineup one through nine.”

And a pretty lively Danville dugout any time a ball goes over the wall.

“If one of us hits a home run, we’re coming back and arguing with each other,” Baxter said.

Bombs come from everywhere in the Danville lineup, including the No. 9 spot, where Smothers has become something of a second leadoff hitter and a a statistical curiosity. He is hitting .380 with seven home runs and 31 RBIs.

Smothers would have the outright home run lead on all but six teams in Kentucky, but he ranks only fifth on his own team.

“I’d say Logan probably has more home runs than any other 9 hole hitter in the country,” Wood said.

So many sources of power make Danville a tough team to pitch to — or around.

“It just puts a lot of pressure on the other team, and I expect to see that in postseason play,” Paul Morse said. “Normally teams and coaches can pitch around guys in your lineup. They’re either going to walk you or not give you something good to hit, and that’s really, really hard with this team.

“Some teams have tried to do that a little bit with us this year, but if you make an error or you walk a guy or you hit a guy, all of a sudden that one mistake turns into a crooked number with this team. They take advantage of that, and they kind of feed off of those kind of things, which is fun to watch.”

There are several factors behind Danville’s power prowess, one of which is talent, of course. The regular lineup consists entirely of upperclassmen who have been playing together for 10 years or so.

“I think it’s talent level,” Brady Morse said. “We also play together well as a team and cheer each other on. We’ve played together, most of us, since we were 8 or 9, and we just play really well together, and I think it works out well.”

Paul Morse has coached his son Brady and many of the others through the years on youth and travel teams.

“So a lot of things that most people wouldn’t get installed in them at an early age, it did with that group,” the coach said. “And it’s a big plus to them right now, and it’s really gratifying seeing them put that into play at a high level.”

There also is an emphasis on weightlifting that Paul Morse said his past teams haven’t had and that he said has helped his team maintain its production level at the plate over the course of a long season.

“We implemented a pretty good weightlifting program, and we’re still lifting at least twice a week right now in season, and I think that has really helped,” he said. “That’s something we haven’t done in years past, and I think that’s kept our guys’ strength up and weight up.”

There is the maturity, both physically and mentally, that comes with age. That has led to more players who are bigger and stronger than some Danville teams with younger lineups had, and it has led to players who are disciplined at the plate.

“For the most part, they aren’t going to swing at bad pitches,” Paul Morse said. “They’re waiting for their pitch. If you’re not going to give them a good pitch, then they’re going to take their walks. Or if you make good pitches and they get two strikes, they’re not home run or nothing. They’re thinking about taking the ball the other way and getting some hits. And now most these guys are big and strong enough they still can drive the ball out to the opposite field, which is another big plus.

And, of course, there is the level of competition that only good friends can enjoy. Here’s a good example: Wood and Howe have been neck and neck at the top of the list of state leaders all season, but Wood grinned as he said that’s about the change.

“We all know Christian is probably stuck. He probably won’t hit another home run this year, because I put a curse on him,” Wood said. “I just wiggled my fingers over his head, and he can’t hit any more.”

While the group laughed at that, Howe rose to a point of order.

“I’d just like to let everyone know that I did hit one pretty recently,” he smiled and said. “I think it’s made all of us better, we’re all trying to beat each other, and we’re all playing better.”

Then there is the ballpark, a factor that can’t be ignored. Admiral Field has always been hitter-friendly, even after the fences were raised several years ago.

Danville has hit 35 home runs in 13 home games and has 25 homers in 18 games at other parks. Still, few of the Admirals’ homers at home have been of the “just barely” variety.

“Most of our home runs end up around the tree line,” Smothers said.

The players say they are the same hitters at home or away.

“We don’t have any different approach in other ballparks,” Brady Morse said. “Ninety percent of our home runs would definitely go out at any high school field in the state,” Brady Morse said.

“Or they’d by extra-base hits,” Smothers added. “That’s the one thing that we’ve heard a lot about, how short our field is and this and that, but then we go to these other ballparks and we literally send them out like we do here.”

The Admirals have gone without a home run in only six games this season, and they have hit multiple home runs in 15 games, including five in games against Southwestern and Garrard County and four in another half-dozen games.

They recently surpassed the school’s single-season home run record, eclipsing the 1992 team led by Paul Morse (23), Steven Green (16) and Troy Trumbo (15).

Morse, who was a senior on that team, held the school single-season record before one of his players, Rich Witten, broke it with 25 homers in 2006. He remains tied for third in the state record book, and he occasionally is reminded of that by his son and other players.

“They just say, ‘How come the fence is 10 or 12 feet high now, and when you played it was only 5?’ I say, ‘Well, I’ve got to protect some records,’” the coach smiled and said.

However, the players also are happy to give him credit for their success.

“He’s helped us all with our swings,” Baxter said. “Most of our home runs, he can take credit for them.”

And he’s enjoying watching them leave their mark on the school and state record books, and watching them enjoy playing the game day after day.

“They’re definitely rewriting the record books for Danville High School,” he said. “And the big thing is they love to play, they have fun and they like each other.”


Season leaders

Six Danville baseball players ranked among the top 25 home run leaders in Kentucky high school baseball when play began this week. Their statistics through Saturday’s games:

Rank         Name               AB        H        HR       RBI       K      Avg.

T1. Christian Howe          91         49       13            54       8     .538

T1. Ethan Wood              101         52       13            46      15     .515

T3. Preston Barnes          83         33       11             29      16     .398

6. Brady Baxter                86         39         9             37       7      .453

T7. Logan Smothers        79         30         7             31       15    .380

T22. Brady Morse            88         34        5             40        6     .386

All-time leaders

The highest single-season home run totals in state history, based on KHSAA records:

105 — Harrison County, 1992

  89 — East Carter, 1999

  78 — Harrison County, 1997

  63 — Harrison County, 1993

  63 — Harrison County, 1998

  60 — x-Danville, 2021

x-through Saturday