West Mifflin routs Carrick to continue hot start
The word Jeff Smith came up with to describe the first couple of weeks as West Mifflin's baseball coach was “awkward.”
Smith couldn't have chosen a more appropriate word.
Smith, an assistant at West Mifflin for the past decade, was promoted to head coach and was the only one retained from a veteran staff when Jeff Kuzma was not brought back after 13 years and 121 wins.
“I am friends with those guys, and that is what makes it awkward,” Smith said. “You want to still have a good relationship, but it is never going to be the same because they felt they should be here for this. They have been waiting a long time to see these kids mature, and they don't get to reap the rewards.”
If the first couple of weeks of the season is any indication, there might be a lot of rewards to reap come the end of May.
After missing the playoffs three consecutive seasons, West Mifflin is off to a 4-1 start including a pair of Section 4-AAA wins in less than 24 hours. The Titans routed Carrick, 14-1, in five innings on Wednesday, and beat one of the section favorites, Belle Vernon, on Tuesday night, 8-1.
“The best thing that could've happened was to get off to a fast start,” Smith said. “Winning does solve a lot of problems.”
So does hiring a coach who has a long relationship with the current players to relieve some tension associated with the surprising decision not to bring back Kuzma, a well respected and liked veteran coach.
Smith wasn't officially hired until November.
“We have been around (Smith) for a while, so it is not that big of a deal to us,” senior catcher Ryan Kandsberger said. “It stinks not having (the former coaching staff) around anymore, but I am just glad we got somebody that we actually know.”
“With anybody new coming in and with a veteran team like we have — you have a couple kids who are four-year starters here — and all of a sudden you have somebody new come in, it could've been an issue,” Smith said.
“These kids have been with me for years. It's not like they don't know me, and they've had me coming through the system. They knew me and respected me and as long as you win, they are going to follow right along with you.”
And as long as West Mifflin keeps getting starting pitching like it has, the winning is going to continue.
Joe Stavor scattered three hits over five innings while striking out five to improve to 2-0. He faced the minimum through 4 2⁄3 innings before allowing a pair of walks and a RBI double by Jordan Graziano in the fifth.
“Stavor did what he had to do,” Smith said. “He threw strikes the first game we had down south and came in and did the same thing here.”
Stavor has allowed eight hits in 11 innings and has a 1.27 ERA while ace A.J. Olasz, a Cincinnati recruit, has allowed one run in 13 innings while striking out 25 in two starts.
Throw in Zach Salmon, and the Titans have a deep and talented pitching staff.
“Every starter has done their job,” Smith said. “In fact, I am having trouble getting relievers in to get some innings because the starters are pitching so well. We really haven't been tested yet up here, but I am sure that's coming.”
Against Carrick, West Mifflin got a double, triple and two RBIs from Olasz, two hits and a RBI from Zach Fodor, three RBIs from Jake Liposky and two from Kevin Dulak in banging out a season-high 11 hits and 14 runs off two Carrick pitchers.
“They gave us some runs early,” Smith said. “We started to get on to their pitcher in the fourth. We were very patient and didn't try to pull the ball, and the hits started to come.”
West Mifflin's big inning came in the fourth when the Titans sent 13 batters to the plate, scoring eight runs on seven hits.
“Last year we were supposed to play like this but just couldn't put any hits together,” Kandsberger said. “When we were in Florida, it kind of opened our eyes that we can actually hit. We just have to keep it going.”