After two hard-fought losses to open the Catholic League baseball season, Father Judge head coach Tim Ginter opted for the Rocky movie analogy instead of Silver Linings Playbook.
In this unforgiving league, it’s hard to accept moral victories without getting left behind.
“It’s a bit of that Rocky scenario: it’s admirable, but in the end you still lose,” Ginter said following Judge’s 10-6 Monday afternoon home loss to Catholic Red Division rival St. Joseph’s Prep. “We need to be more proactive in our fight, instead of being reactionary in our fight.”
The Crusaders were down 3-0 to the Hawks before they even came to bat, and trailed 7-1 and 9-2 at certain points in the game. However, they fought back valiantly, even bringing the tying run to the plate in the home half of the seventh inning before a harmless grounder to short gave the Prep the victory.
It was comparable to Judge’s first division game last week against Roman Catholic. In that one, the Crusaders fell behind, 5-2, tied it in the seventh, and allowed an unearned run to score before stranding the tying runner in scoring position to end the game. On a young team with not a heck of a lot of varsity experience, Ginter is trying to teach these guys how to win in the Catholic League on the fly against top-line competition every day. (Following the loss to the Prep, Judge had to quickly throw the result out the window, press the reset button and prepare for a game at La Salle the very next day. Life in this league, those involved will tell you, ain’t easy.)
“It’s a matter of finding our sea legs, so to speak,” Ginter said. “They (St. Joe’s Prep) will be one of the better teams when all is said and done, and they have a lot of guys back on a team that played in the championship last year. Our roster isn’t full of a bunch of seasoned guys, but I’ll still go to battle with my guys any day of the week.”
There’s a reason for that. After going 5-10 in the regular season a year ago, Judge knocked off Archbishop Carroll in the opening round of the playoffs, setting up a meeting with eventual champion La Salle. In that game, the two teams were tied after six innings, so Ginter, a former Judge player now in his eighth season as head coach, knows full well that in the Catholic League, anything can happen if you continue putting your best foot forward. Anyone can go on a run, so it’s important to Ginter that his team never gets too high or too low during the season.
“We talk a lot about not getting ahead of ourselves,” he said. “The season is a roller coaster, and hopefully you have more highs than lows, but sometimes there comes a downward cycle where we have to keep the lows from being too low and the highs from being too high. The minute you let yourself think you’re better or worse than you believe, that’s when you get pummeled. That’s what we can’t have happen, because it’s detrimental to young talent.”
And young talent is certainly what Judge has. Against the Prep, Ginter started two sophomores (shortstop Dan Hammer and center fielder Tom Penko) and a score of juniors (outfielder Sam Naftulin, third baseman Eric Petroski, first baseman Ryan O’Neill and pitcher Josh McManis). Seniors Austin Mikula (catcher), Bill Romano (second base) and Mike Taffe rounded out the order, while junior Jim Huston and senior Dom Vivino also saw action.
Against the Prep, Hammer crushed a long home run, while Vivino kept the Crusaders in the game on the hill after McManis faltered early. Ginter is also very high on Petroski as a middle-of-the-order infielder who can also pitch (as he did against the Prep), Mikula behind the plate (he threw out a few runners trying to steal second), O’Neill and his “steady bat” and the young sophomore Penko out of the leadoff spot. Ginter also said Judge doesn’t have “that stereotypical horse” at the top of the rotation, and to expect lots of parity in terms of innings pitched by the end of the season. Hammer, O’Neill and Naftulin are all expected to see time on the mound this season, as well. The defense, which Ginter said “shot themselves in the foot with some miscues” against the Prep, is still coming along in the season’s early stages.
“It’s tough to be successful when you play on your heels and constantly have to fight back to get even,” Ginter said. “At the same time, I like these guys a lot as a team. They fight. No score is too big for them to push and rally for each other. We just need to figure out how to fight more in the beginning so that we can be successful in the end.”
In the end, of course, Ginter has high expectations for his team, and he expects to compete in a rigorous division that also includes Archbishop Ryan and Cardinal O’Hara. To say there’s never a night off is one of the oldest sporting cliches in the book, but in the Catholic League, it couldn’t ring truer.
“We don’t go into seasons saying, ‘Wait ‘til next year,’ ” Ginter said. “We want to learn and grow and get experience, but we also want to compete. There’s a really rich tradition here, and the guys know what it’s all about. They’re told on a daily basis that we expect nothing other than to fight and compete and have respect for the game and their school. It’s important to me, it’s important to them, and when all is said and done, I expect us to be back in the playoffs where maybe we can make another pseudo-run.”
And the only way for a young team like the Crusaders to get better, Ginter said, is to focus equally on all three facets of the game: offense, defense and pitching. To put too much of an onus on one over the others would be a disservice to the team as a whole.
“After every game, it’s, OK, pitching: what did we do well and what did we do poorly,” he said. “Same for the offense and defense. The minute you think it’s good to go is the minute it breaks down. You can’t let one facet become more important than the others on a team with young talent. You have to focus on all three; without that, you trick yourself into thinking you’re better or worse than you actually are.
“There’s the same kind of feeling, the same kind of buzz and anticipation, the same as when I first became a varsity assistant 11 years ago. I know I’m biased, but there’s nothing like Catholic League baseball. With some of these rivalries — especially Judge-Ryan and Judge-La Salle — to be able to do this year-in and year-out, there’s nothing better. I enjoy it as much as I enjoy anything else.” ••