Trinity Academy baseball coach Dave Martin recognized at the beginning of the season that he had a sleeping giant in pitcher Josh Merrill. The senior righty has an arm that can launch balls 93 mph on the radar gun, and consistently hovers between 88 and 91.
That was Merrill's biggest strength, but it led to a weakness.
"He is not an experienced pitcher," Martin said. "He is really just figuring it out. His idea of pitching was throwing it as hard as he could every pitch. In his first three outings he never got past third inning."
Merrill had been home-schooled before coming to Trinity his junior season. Last year he played in the outfield and had few pitching opportunities.
Merrill has progressed as a pitcher though. His record is 4-0, and he has three consecutive shutouts. Merrill pitched a four-hit shutout against Andover Central on Tuesday in a 7-0 win. His growth has helped the 13-5 Knights to a No. 2 seed in the Class 4A Winfield regional.
"In the last three outings he has really been putting it together," Martin said. "He's learned how to get his inside game/mental game together. He's learned how to come off of the accelerator a little bit and get ahead of batters. He's mixed in his slider and changeup with about three fastballs to give him a total of five pitches that he can throw for strikes."
Derby refuses to lose —Things turned around for Derby following its 5-2 loss to Maize on May 3. Rarely do losses inspire confidence, but after that game the then 4-8 Panthers decided they were tired of losing and had the talent to play better baseball.
Derby won six games in a row, including a sweep Tuesday over Goddard, the No. 2-ranked team in Class 6A.
"After that first win six games ago we talked about coming into games with an attitude," Derby coach J.B. Nicholson said. "We talked about having a killer instinct. We talked about running the table and getting eight wins in a row one pitch at a time. Winning like this boosts your confidence, definitely."
Derby has found consistency in a quartet of pitchers led by senior right-hander Zach Ashford. Ashford recovered from a shoulder injury that limited his appearances and pitch counts earlier in the season, and has blossomed into the Panthers' ace. Senior righty Alex Hart, junior lefty Trey James and freshman reliever Garrett Rankin have all found their grooves at the right time for Derby.
"I think we found our pitching staff — our core," Nicholson said. "We didn't have our starters and our combinations where we needed them to be. In the last six games, I think we've put that together. And of course offensively we are hitting it pretty well. When you put those things together you have the potential to do pretty well."
Leading the way for Derby at the plate has been Logan Newfarmer (six homers, 30 RBIs), Ashford (four homers, .377 average) and Chris Roman.