Even Braden McAllister’s biggest fans probably didn’t expect to see him in Ozark’s starting lineup Saturday. Likewise, even Jarrett Engel’s most passionate supporters would have had a hard time early in the week imagining he would get the start on the mound for the Tigers in their District opener.
But there they were, Engel starring on the mound and McAllister enjoying a shining moment at-bat in Ozark’s 10-0, five-inning whipping of Branson in a Class 5 District 10 blowout.
Engel fired a three-hit shutout. He was fresh from being roughed up for five hits and six runs in a disastrous one-third of an inning relief outing against Willard on Monday.
“That was one of my worst games. It probably was good for me,” Engel said. “It got my attention. I realized I was throwing the ball a little too high in the strike zone, right around their belts. So, I focused on lowering my strikes today. I think that was the right adjustment. It worked out. I got a lot of ground balls.”
Coach Mike Essick went with Engel on the advice of his players.
“I like to give ownership to the players, so we got them together and asked what did they want us to do on the mound,” Essick said. “They said, ‘Coach, we have confidence in Jarrett and we want to save Dylan (Frandsen) and Riley (Sundlie) for later on.' I said, ‘This is your team, that’s what we'll do.’”
Essick, too, had confidence in Engel, who improved to 5-1, as a starter.
“Every time Jarrett has started, he has been outstanding," Essick said. "When we have brought him in relief, it’s been a fight at the bat rack. We knew if he threw strikes, he would be successful and he threw strikes.”
Engel, who entered with 20 walks in 19.2 innings, walked one.
“I was happy to hear I was going to have another opportunity and wanted to make the most of it,” he said. “My fast ball was hitting my spot. My curve ball was shaky. But I had a one or two good ones. We were mostly painting inside on the first pitch and then going outside.”
Essick went with a pitcher by committee approach at the end of the regular season, with no one throwing more than two innings. But Engel went the distance Saturday.
“I wasn’t worried about what was going on in the dugout or who was in the ‘pen,” Engel said. “I kept my mind centered on the strike zone and that was it.”
McAllister also made for a feel-good story.
A starter in March and April, he entered Saturday with a .238 batting average and was in a 1-for-10 funk. He had only one at-bat in all of May and struck out. Out of nowhere, he got the start at first base and responded with an RBI-double.
“Baseball can be about gut instinct and I had a gut feeling today that ‘Brado’ needed to start,” Essick said. “He had been hitting well in practices. It was nice to see him hit well today. The players make you look good. Sometimes, I have a gut feeling and it doesn’t pan out well, but today it did.”
“It was nice to help out the guys,” McAllister added. ”They’ve been able to help me when I’ve needed it. It was nice to return the favor."
Prior to his double, McAllister hit a liner down the right-field line, but just foul.
“That sort of stunk. But I knew I had to get another pitch and keep the bat on the ball,” he said. “Lately, the way I’ve been swinging, (right field) is where I’ve been hitting it well. I’ve been trying to stay in the right-center gap.”
Carson Shaver capped Ozark’s rout with a three-run home run. He took the advice of Essick and jumped all over a first-pitch fast ball.
“It took a time through the lineup, but we realized we were getting some tendencies,” Shaver said of Branson staring pitcher Graham Funderburk. “He was throwing a lot of first-pitch fast balls. That’s what I was looking for and he left it where I like it.”
“You usually get one good pitch to hit and if it’s a good fast ball, you’ve got to get on it,” Essick said. “You let a pitcher get ahead of you and any good pitcher is going to put you away. If you had a fast ball to hit and you didn’t swing at it, now you’re going to have to swing at something off-speed or his pitch.”
Ozark (16-12) is an optimistic mode going into its semifinal date against No. 1 seed Glendale (20-7) at 4 p.m. Monday.
“We want to get on a roll,” Engel said. “Toward the end of the season, we picked it up. We’re starting to get hot at the right time and it’s all about how you finish.”
“We played today like we know we can,” Shaver said. “We had a lot of energy in the dugout. Everything is starting to come together for us. It’s a lot of fun.”