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Plant City Observer Thursday, Mar. 22, 2018 8 months ago

Strong arms keep Raiders baseball steady

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Plant City’s pitching staff leads the way for the team’s best-ever season start.
by: Justin Kline Sports/Associate Editor

Plant City High School’s baseball team has long sought what would be the program’s first district championship. Thanks in part to solid pitching, the 2018 Raiders look like a team capable of ending the drought now.

The Raiders’ 9-1 start to the season was thought to be the best in program history and, as opponents have been held to one run or fewer in seven of those first 10 games, head coach Mike Fryrear is especially pleased with the way the pitching staff has turned out. Parker Messick, TJ Gayner, Jarod Wingo and Dylan Robinson have been key cogs in Class 8A-District 6’s most efficient machine thus far.

“We’re out here every day putting in the grind,” Gayner said. “Every single day, we’re going 110% and just taking it into the game and succeeding.”

Fryrear said he doesn’t utilize this pitching staff in the same way as he has in years past, when his “best guys” were scheduled to start against the “best teams.” Gayner and Messick have settled into a distinct routine: Gayner is the team’s Tuesday night guy and Messick is the Friday night guy, no matter how good the opponent is.

“I think any high school team would love to have a Tuesday night guy and a Friday night guy,” Fryrear said. “I love that. We’ve never had that before.”

Both have been excellent. Gayner, featured recently as a Plant City Observer Athlete of the Week, has a 1.48 ERA with 17 strikeouts, five walks allowed, three wins and one perfect game — the 17-0 win over Hillsborough in the Feb. 20 season opener. Messick, a junior, has a 1.40 ERA and leads the team with 28 strikeouts and two complete games. His 28 strikeouts also lead the district.

Gayner and Messick both saw action in 2017 and, Fryrear said, have improved greatly from working hard on their craft every day. Gayner added a knuckleball to his repertoire and improved his composure on the mound. Messick broke out of what Fryrear called a “sophomore slump” by bringing his changeup back into the mix and working on his pitch mechanics in the offseason.

Robinson, the team’s top relief pitcher, also has yet to allow a run to score and has struck out 13 batters in 10 innings of work. Switching between his knuckle-curve and cut fastball has worked well in 2018, especially against right-handed hitters.

“He’s been a very, very good, steady force for us the last two years,” Fryrear said.

Wingo, a sophomore, has won both of his starts and has yet to give up a run. He’s struck out 10 hitters in 10 innings pitched and held a shutout for all six of his innings against Brandon in the Raiders’ Saladino Tournament opener. Fryrear said he is pleased with what Wingo has brought to the table since he came “out of the woodwork.”

Fryrear and the pitchers said the atmosphere at 1 Raider Place is totally new and improved. With a bigger emphasis on making practices more “fun” and doing more group bonding activities, team morale and chemistry are both running high.

“We’re having a lot more fun in practice and I feel like that takes the pressure off of us a little bit,” Robinson said. “We get to go out here and have fun, but still work at the same time.”

The confidence and trust in each other, the players said, is high enough that they think they can go beat just about anybody together.

“We’ve all played with each other since we were little,” Robinson said. “Work ethic is a really big thing. Everyone here just works really, really hard.”

Though the team is enjoying a great season to this point, winning the 8A-6 title is never easy. With competition from opponents like Durant, Riverview and Bloomingdale, this district has earned its reputation as a tough gauntlet for anybody.

Only time will tell how they fare in the tournament, but the Raiders are confident they have what it takes to win that title for the first time.

Justin Kline is the Sports/Associate Editor at the Plant City Observer. He has been covering all things sports-related in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World since 2013.

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