EAST LAKE – Trust the process.
The pros, college, high school – it’s a sporting phrase that’s become as common as “taking it one game at a time.”
East Lake baseball’s been one of Pinellas County’s best programs for a decade.
Pitch the ball, catch the ball, squeeze out enough offense to pick up Ws.
The combo of high-level pitching and defense has been the recipe for success for most East Lake teams in recent years. Lighting up scoreboards with the bats has not exactly kept pace.
Things have been changing, though, and it’s not because of an altered approach. The Eagles still pitch and play defense as well as anyone.
It’s the offense.
Coach Zack Roper took over at East Lake in 2016, two years after the Eagles played in their second-ever state championship game. Over the past three seasons, East Lake’s accumulated a 64-22 record and won the past two Class 8A District 7 championships.
During that time East Lake’s offense has been getting itself into the game more and more. The Eagles averaged 4.6 runs per game in 2016 when they reached the Class 8A region finals. That bumped up to 5.2 in 2017 and 5.7 last year.
Things are spiking in 2019.
East Lake’s averaging 8.4 runs per game this season and providing more than enough run support for a stellar pitching staff that entered this week surrendering 16 runs through 16 games.
It’s no surprise that that kind of all-around production has produced a perfect 16-0 record.
There’s plenty of baseball left to be played this season, but it appears the current Eagles coaching staff, combined with a talented roster, of course, are putting some pieces together.
“This is my fourth year here,” Roper said after an 11-0 mercy-rule win at Countryside last week. “You come in and implement certain types of approaches for hitting. For me it’s not as much mechanics as it is what your approach is and what you’re trying to do as a hitter. I think kids have bought into that and I also think we have outstanding talent already that buys into a process. I really think when they play for each other and as a team, that’s what you get.”
As a team, East Lake’s posted a batting average of .369 and an on-base percentage of .481. This isn’t a lineup just slapping around base hits, either. Almost 30 percent of its 163 total hits have gone for extra bases.
Every Eagles batter in their regular nightly lineup is hitting well over .300 and three are over .400 – Josh Pigozzo (.479), Sean Murray (.457) and Harrison Rossi (.405). Pigozzo’s leading the squad in hits, runs batted in and doubles and said the team felt confident success was coming in 2019.
“We were good last year and we were really young, so I knew we were going to come into this year and be better and stronger,” the junior said. “When you keep winning you can come out relaxed and just play the game. We make sure we play hard and take care of business.”
While the offense has been an attention grabber to everyone familiar with Pinellas County baseball, Roper said the program’s philosophy for winning games remains the same.
It still starts with pitching. Throw strikes, pound the zone, trust your defense. “Be the dominant person on the field,” Roper said.
The entire Eagles staff owns a filthy 0.86 earned run average and it’s struck out 117 opposing batters while walking only 32. Juniors Ryan Slater (0.38 ERA, 6-0), Cooper Nelson (0.50, 5-0) and Nate Culver (0.82, 4-0) give East Lake one of the best and deepest starting rotations in the Tampa Bay area.
“In high school I feel like if you can throw good strikes and have confident defenders behind you, you’re going to be in every game. You might not win every game but you’re always going to be in games.”
With all three aspects of the game – pitching, defense, hitting – firing on all cylinders, East Lake’s in good position to keep winning well into the month of May.