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Rock Hill High pitchers are diamond cutters

Armed and dangerous.

That's what first-year Rock Hill High baseball coach Chris Bates wanted from his returning pitchers.

Bates was excited about three left-handers - Jesse Brewer, Logan Cribb and Josh Bowers - coming back from a team that won 20 games last season and won a share of the Region 3-AAAA title. Bates knew that if he needed to turn to another pitcher, he could put catcher Ross Lisee on the mound.

One of Bates' priorities was to identify one more pitcher to complete his staff. He chose Dylan McCann, a backup catcher and outfielder with a cannon-like arm.

Those five have figured in all 19 Bearcats' games and have a combined record of 17-2. Brewer got both losses, 3-2 against Spring Valley and 4-1 against Nation Ford. Bates said the Bearcats' bats let Brewer down.

"Any time you have three left-handers who are above-average pitchers you are going to have a good staff to build around,'' Bates said. "Then you have a thrower like Ross to turn to and you have another right-hander in Dylan McCann who can eat up innings because he throws strikes.''

Lisee knows the pitching staff well and said it's easy catching the others. Each, Lisee said, has his own style, and he has confidence in their abilities.

Lisee described Cribb as a pitcher who stays ahead in the count, which makes him a swing-and-miss thrower. Brewer, he said, is a location pitcher who pounds the ball at batters and can overpower them. Bowers has good movement on his pitches and keeps batters guessing, which results in strikeouts and not making good contact. McCann, as Bates pointed out, throws strikes and seldom walks a batter.

"All of them have good location and throw strikes,'' Lisee said. "If they don't strike out a batter, they make him put the ball in play and we let our defense do its job. We've been playing together since the eighth grade, so we pretty much know what to expect from each other.''

And they can hit. All five play in the field when not on the hill. They can hit for power. They can get base hits and move runners around. Last Saturday night at The Winthrop Ballpark, Cribb rocketed a ball over the right-field fence for a two-run homer in the championship game of the three-day Wheels Invitational.

It was just one of many big blows during the three-day Wheels Invitational, which Rock Hill won for the first time with a 12-2, five-inning win over Ohio's Padua. The Bearcats also made some outstanding defensive plays in the game and Brewer was "on,'' firing a two-hitter and striking out eight. In the six games, Rock Hill produced 71 runs.

"We go out and throw strikes,'' Brewer said. "And the good thing about this team is the pitchers know if we do our job, our offense will get it done at the plate. If we get behind, we don't panic. We know our offense will get us some runs if we hold the other team down.''

The combined ERA for the staff is 2.83, with 161 strikeouts. The Bearcats are batting .354, with 150 runs scored, an average of 7.89 per game, and 12 home runs. Any pitcher would appreciate such an offensive output.

All five are seniors and have their plans set for college. Bowers signed with Winthrop, Brewer with Spartanburg Methodist, Lisee with Erskine and Cribb is waiting to sign with The Citadel. McCann will attend Clemson and is considering getting involved with the baseball team as a walk-on or at a position that will allow him to be part of the team.

"The first time we met coach Bates, he told us if we could keep games close he'd find a way to get us a run and win,'' McCann said. "He's done that and is good at finding a way to win.

"I would say his style is aggressive. He's taught us how to play small ball ... bunts and hit-and-runs to get us around the bases.''

It's been an up-and-down ride for the Bearcats since last season, when they were the No. 1 seed in a four-game regional at their field but failed to get to the next round. Being eliminated by two losses to Clover, the No. 4 seed, put a damper on their season.

And there was the coaching situation. Eddie Hill resigned after 27 years and two of his assistants were let go. The players felt betrayed and thoughts of transferring were tossed around out loud.

Rock Hill athletic director Billy Parker and principal Judy Mobley made a promise to the players and their parents, who showed their loyalty to Hill. They would search around and bring in the best baseball coach possible.

They found Bates, the baseball coach at Greer's Riverside for seven seasons. He compiled a 192-31 record there, won three Class AAA state championships, had his team ranked No. 1 nationally in the preseason and twice ended up No. 2 nationally.

Bates quickly won over his new team. He also made a change that puzzled the players. He moved the Bearcats from the first-base dugout to the other side at third. Bates told his players he did so because he could coach them better from that side. In other words, it was a mental move to show his players changes were coming.

His strategy was to convince the Bearcats they could be successful. When teams were allowed to practice, Bates told them to leave their gloves behind because they were going to work on the little things first ... base running, stealing, bunting, executing the hit-and-run.

The Bearcats have reached a goal that has evaded them in recent years. They beat rival Northwestern in a 5-0 game, their only regular-season meeting, earlier this season.

Bates said it was a given that he had good pitchers and a good defensive team. What he wanted to get across was the team could be "dangerous'' and could "steamroll'' opponents if they executed the little things. From the start, Bates said, his players bought into his system and developed a winning mentality.

"Our drills and the way we play are more like a college type of baseball,'' Cribb said. "We practice hard - game situations and the way a game is supposed to be played.

"That's good for us because I'm still hungry after the way our season ended last year. We heard rumors that coach Bates was coming in, but we didn't know if they were true. When he got here, we didn't know what to expect but when we met him things started falling into place.''

Cribb, Brewer and Bowers have a routine before every game, one they call "Magic.'' They come together and, if the Bearcats are home, they touch the game ball that day's pitcher's taking to the mound. If they are on the road, they touch the new ball that goes to the bullpen.

"We might be the only staff around with three lefties,'' Bowers said. "All of us can throw pitches for strikes, and all of us have a pitch we use when we get two strikes on a batter. But we can't tell what it is. We don't want to give anything away.''