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Skilled closers provide uncommon relief for coaches

In trouble, area baseball coaches often turn to their closers. Some are designated. Most aren't.

Because the position is not generally developed at the high school level, it's often a game of feel.

"Closers are not a luxury you have," Ridgewood coach Larry Beets said. "It's usually something you choose out of necessity."

This season, River Ridge's Billy Phillips, Ridgewood's Richie Hittel and Hudson's Bryan Strawser have turned in solid relief outings in a pinch. Land O'Lakes' Jeff Baisley has struggled, but coach and dad Calvin take the blame for that: "We're doing a bad job with him; we're not getting him the ball enough."

All of the aforementioned closers are not typical firemen. They don't sit in the pen and wait their turn. They are not specialists. Almost always, they come in after playing six innings in the field.

Phillips arguably has been the most effective of the group, but he's a catcher. River Ridge coach Jack Homko will play him behind the plate for five innings, let him play third for an inning "to get his legs back under him," and have him finish off close games.

This season Phillips has a 1.47 earned run average with 27 strikeouts in 14 innings. It is one of the few times Homko has had a closer.

Hittel plays infield or outfield before pitching. Though he has 0.68 ERA, he is not called on exclusively to get saves, serving the role of stopper instead.

"We use him to stop whatever is going on," Beets said. "Sometimes that means we bring him in early."

Strawser has a save, but his best performances have been in long relief. And Baisley, the Gators' starting shortstop, has some of the best stuff of the group but has been hit hard in his first two appearances, losing each time.

Phillips and Baisley throw in the high-80s and could probably be top starters. But they are too valuable at their regular positions.

The primary reason closer is an undeveloped position is simple: The best pitchers are starters. The past two seasons, because his pitching staff was so deep, Cal Baisley was able to use Kurt Shafer _ a major-league draft choice last year _ as his closer. Those staffs of 1999 and 2000, however, are rare.

The fortunate coaches, when in trouble, know who they're going to. The less fortunate end up playing a guessing game.

HOT YOUNGSTERS: Ridgewood has a strong senior group but is getting good performances from some of its younger players, most notably sophomores Monte Werner and Matt Laliberte and freshman Aaron MacLamar.

Werner went 3-for-3 with three RBI in Tuesday's win over Palm Harbor. That pushed his average to .361, and his 13 hits is second on the team. MacLamar is right behind with 11 hits and a .306 average, and Laliberte has a 2-1 record as a pitcher, including a complete game.

_ JOHN C. COTEY

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