ELLIS — In retrospect, Friday’s home contest for the Ellis baseball team against Wichita County was as much of another day at practice for the Railroaders than a competitive afternoon on the diamond, so much so that two Railers batted from the wrong side of the plate … on purpose.
Already with a 17-0 lead in hand in the second inning of Game 2, junior Clay Feik caught an oncoming pitch barehanded and threw the ball back to the pitcher. He drove the next pitch for an RBI single, sending junior Dalton Hensley into the batter’s box.
“I was like, ‘Gosh, I guess I have to bat left-handed now,” Hensley said.
He responded with a single of his own, sending the Ellis dugout into a frenzy and junior Easton Smith to the plate to give left-handed batting a try. He unfortunately became the third hit batter of the game, though it played no factor in the 21-2 end result. Coupled with a 16-0 win in Game 1, the Railers are now 6-0 on the season.
Aside from a 13-10 win at Ellsworth, the Railers have outscored opponents 77-5.
“I think they’re doing a real good job at the plate,” said Ellis head coach Brent Cain. “We’re being real disciplined, even seeing some not-so-good pitching here in the first six games. They’ve done a good job of staying disciplined, swinging at good pitches and scoring runs when we need to.”
The Railers are led by a trio of juniors atop the lineup. Feik, Hensley and Easton Smith hit 1-2-3 for Ellis and have combined for 30 hits, all hitting above .550. Smith has recorded a team-high 17 RBI due to the abilities of Feik and Hensley to get on base.
Feik took a year off from baseball last season, though not without hearing heckling from his teammates. His return to the Railers is also showing his impact early in the season.
“I was so happy to see Clay out,” Smith said. “Last year, we were always like, ‘Come on, Clay, you’ve gotta go out’. To get him out this year, it’s just awesome. He took a year off and he’s hitting the ball great, he’s getting on base.
“Dalton, he’s just a great hitter. When they get on base, I just try to do my best to score them, because I believe in them to get on.”
Behind the top-third of the lineup, Bryce Keithly, Brayden Bittel and Nathan Cox are all batting above .500 through six games. A lineup of athletic and versatile hitters allows Cain to keep Hensley high in the lineup, giving him five hitters with excellent RBI potential.
“We’re extremely fast. Dalton in the two-hole, he can hit the ball wherever he needs to,” Cain said. “Easton and Brevin and Bryce, they’re gonna drive him in. Clay’s still kinda getting back in the swing of things. Him being up at that leadoff is huge so we can keep Dalton in the two-hole to drive Clay in.”
Hensley, Smith and Brevin LaBarge make up the Ellis rotation with a number of others available to spot-start or come in as a reliever. Hensley has struck out 12 in 8.2 innings of work this year, while Smith has recorded 10 strikeouts and allowed zero runs in 8.0 innings.
“We’ve got a solid three, and then we’ve got some guys who can come in and get us some outs when we need it,” Cain said. “If those three guys can stay healthy, they’re gonna win a lot of games for us.”
The Railers advanced to state in 2014 before falling in regional play last season. With Theron Schmidt as the team’s lone senior, the majority of Ellis’ roster were around for the state run and have the potential to make the next two seasons special. Hensley said it comes with a change in attitude from last season.
“We just have to focus more. Last year, we were really having way too much fun, we were relaxing and were just way too lackadaisical,” Hensley said. “We’re in a pretty good rut right now where we’re grinding out practices, going later than we were and having a lot of focus on the baseball field.”
After six games with little competition, the pressure turns up with Tuesday’s tilt against Thomas More Prep-Marian (4-2), one of Ellis’ top opponents.
“It will be good to see some different pitching. It will definitely be faster, more accurate,” Hensley said. “We won’t see as many walks, so we’ll have to put the ball in play. We’re gonna have to keep the ball down in the zone when we’re pitching and not have as many walks.”
The Monarchs have had their way with the Railers for years, but the game feels like the official start to baseball season for an Ellis team that has cruised thus far. With it serving as the first road test in a fairly favorable schedule, Cain does not underplay the importance of proving his team can win against top competition.
“I can’t remember the last time they beat them,” Cain said. “We definitely wanna come out and win a game, at least. We’ve always gotta keep in mind we’ve got two games on Friday, as well. We’re still trying to decide what we want to do pitching-wise, because we definitely need to win two games on Friday and hopefully win three out of four on the week.”