We had a little fun with a baseball story earlier this week. That’s because they’re fun to watch.
Head Coach Ron Walker and the staff have the Fort Madison boys playing baseball we haven’t seen since the early and mid-2000s. Fort Madison won 30 games, according to Varsity Bound, in 2007. It was the last time they were over 20 wins in a season.
This year’s squad just reached 21 wins and could hit 25 in the regular season alone. But they’re looking, as Walker likes to say, ‘down angle’. Ranked 10th in the state in Class 3A is soft. This team took games from a No. 2 ranked Davenport Assumption (17-10) and had a 4-2 lead going into the sixth in the opener of that twinbill before losing 6-4.
The Hounds also had runners at the corners with one out in the top of the 7th in a loss to Washington on June 3.
They also gave Class 4A No. 13 Ottumwa all they could handle before falling 5-3. The Bulldogs lead the CIML Metro at 17-2 in conference play against the Des Moines Public system. They are 27-5 overall and the Hounds had the tying run at the plate in the 7th of that one.
Fort Madison is 21-4 and 14-2 in the Southeast Conference, just a game behind Burlington. The Grayhounds are 16-1 in loop action and the two are on a collision course for Monday night at BHS.
This matchup should determine the outright conference champions, and the two split games on June 17 in Fort Madison.
The stands weren’t full that night, but they were getting close. The stands should be full Monday night.
This is a special group that has losses from games they were in all the way until the seventh innings. And that’s just four Ls. The sole game they were outgunned was the 3-0 shutout the Grayhounds put on ’em on June 17 in the night cap.
Juan Reyes again stymied the Bloodhounds. Reyes is 5-0 on the year with 41 strikeouts and a 1.66 ERA. He shut the Hounds out last year on the back end of a doubleheader as well. Oh, and he’s tied for the conference lead in homers with three. He’ll surely see bump time Monday night with the title presumably on the line.
In the June loss, Reyes struck out 10 and gave up just four hits, but two of the Grayhounds’ runs came off Bloodhound errors. Starter Matt Hopper also came out of the game before an out was recorded with an arm strain.
But the Bloodhounds take a back seat to no one on the mound. Jason Thurman, who has the most appearances of anyone in the conference, has a razor thin ERA at 0.27. Vasin Thurman sits at 0.66 and you know those two are arguing over meatloaf and potatoes as to who’ll come out best on the year.
Jason holds hitters to a .167 hitting clip on the year, while Vasin is just off at .190. and both have allowed just one earned run on the campaign.
These two teams are very similar in capabilities and Monday should prove to be a very engaging doubleheader with a lot at stake.
And it always makes me laugh when Coach Walker has to go 3/4s of the way down the line to hold up Tate Johnson on a triple. I almost expect some day for Johnson to round second with his right hand shielding his face from Walker as he blows by the “on the bag!” call.
Johnson and Landes Williams, who’ve been playing together since the battle of the binkies, lead the Southeast Conference in stolen bases with 16 each. Johnson has 11 extra base hits on the year, including five triples which is best in the conference.
The Thurmans have combined for six saves this year and can be found on just about every top 10 offensive leaderboard in the conference – with the exception of 1 – home runs. Vasin Thurman has the only home run this year for Fort Madison. Burlington has 10 from just their top four hitters.
The Grayhounds’ Alex Fawcett is hitting .476 with three home runs. Counter that with Fort Madison’s Vasin Thurman and Tate Johnson who lead the conference with a combined 61 RBI. Throw in Jason Thurman, who’s also in the top 5, and that number climbs to 86.
But these Hounds don’t hit for power, they play small ball and win with smart base running, timely hitting and working opposing pitchers deep into the count. Four Hounds take the top four spots in RBI sac flies with a combined 15. Vasin Thurman has nine.
They know what to do in the box and “work a plan”, as Walker is regularly heard yelling down from the 3rd base box.
This isn’t a season of wishing and hoping. These boys know what they’re doing and they’re worthy of your admission fee.
It’s been awhile since Fort Madison has packed it in for a baseball game, let alone a baseball game on the road. But attendance seems to always climb when rankings climb.
But Burlington is just 20 minutes away, that’s not even far enough to be considered an away game in metro areas. This will assuredly be a fun baseball game to watch. And due to the records and what’s on the line, you’re average local baseball fans will probably drive over for this one. And they should.
For real baseball enthusiasts, its a rip to watch the Thurman boys, who would probably be all-state in Quidditch if the IHSAA sanctioned it, work deep into counts and then “do a job”.
If Fort Madison should win both games Monday night, the Bloodhounds would still have two conference games left with Keokuk later in the week – and no good coach looks past anyone. But Burlington finishes conference play with the Bloodhounds on Monday, and they’ve won four in a row after postponing four in a row during the early week rains.
So throw the rankings out the window, bring a little extra money for popcorn because this is shaping up to be something to see.
It’s all part of a new buy-in and culture of family in the Fort Madison athletic programs. You can bet just about every Fort Madison coach in the system will be there cheering these Hounds on. It should carry an audience equal to the stage.
Get on a bus, pile into an SUV, hell, get a helicopter ,or ride your bike. It doesn’t matter. But what does matter is if you like real baseball, or you’re just fan of all things Bloodhounds – it shouldn’t get much better than Monday night.
So “let it travel” and head to Burlington High School Monday night. Game time is 5:30 p.m for game 1. If Burlington wins that game they will get the title. If Fort Madison wins game one, it’s a tie and the night cap will leave the conference title squarely in the hands of Walker, Schinstock, the Williams, the Thurmans, Johnson, Engeman, Hopper, Turnbull, Hannum, Pennock and the rest of the Crimson and Black.
I’ll be there – but that really is Beside the Point.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at email@example.com