As practice wrapped up for the Paso Robles High School baseball team during a warm June day, players slowly trickled out to the parking lot.
Only a handful remained to move the batting cage off the field. One of those players was catcher Mark Armstrong — seemingly trying to wring all that he could out of his senior year.
Most of his teammates were readying for summer league, which started this week. But for Armstrong, there will be no steamy nights playing under the lights in the coming months — or even a next year on the diamond. Armstrong’s baseball career is over — at least competitively — barring a change of heart, and he’ll be attending Cal Poly for computer science this fall.
“Every day he comes to work,” head coach Derek Stroud said. “He has a seriousness about him that he’s going to be consistent — his effort is going to be there every single day.
“We say (to the other players), ‘If you want to know how it’s done right, watch him.’ ”
Armstrong helped the Bearcats to a co-PAC 8 title and the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs this spring, calling every pitch along the way for a staff that combined for a 1.55 ERA for the season. A switch-hitter, Armstrong hit .354 and three home runs — the only player on the team with a long ball — during the regular season from the leadoff position, in addition to smacking 11 doubles, three triples, eight stolen bases and driving in 28 runs.
In the playoffs, Armstrong was even better, going 6 for 10 with four RBI, four runs scored and a three-run home run in the first round. The Bearcats scored a total of 17 runs in the playoffs — Armstrong accounted for eight. The Bearcats only allowed five runs in four games during their historic playoff run.
“He’s at his best when the games mean the most,” Stroud said.
For his accomplishments, Armstrong has been named The Tribune’s 2017 County Baseball Player of the Year.
Calling the Game
Armstrong began calling games as a sophomore after working on it in the preseason following the departure of senior catcher Kai Bedell — whom Stroud said was the first catcher he let call games. Stroud believes the catcher has a better feel for the game than coaches looking on from the dugout.
“We had Mark do it from the get-go. I think he really understood how to call a game,” Stroud said. “He really developed a good rapport with the pitchers and what was needed for each one to be successful.”
Armstrong says the key to calling a game is “playing to the pitcher’s strengths, not hitters’ weaknesses” — which takes an inherent understanding of the pitcher.
That rapport helped the Bearcats make the playoffs for the past three years with Armstrong running the show. Overall, Paso Robles has made the postseason every year since 2014, when Armstrong’s varsity career began after being called up for the playoffs as a freshman.
Perhaps what makes Armstrong’s development more striking is that he only starting taking catching seriously as freshman after being urged to try it by a coach.
“There’s something about the position,” Armstrong said. “Being able to handle the ball every play, being able to see the whole diamond in front of you and being able to control things that really appealed to me.”
Armstrong’s value wasn’t just in the intangibles. He set the tone offensively for the Bearcats from the leadoff spot, where he was able to utilize his patience at the plate and also collect the most at bats.
And his versatility at the plate came from his father, a big baseball fan who taught his son to hit left-handed at an early age. Then during his first year of organized baseball, the coach had the players bat right-handed. He’s been a switch-hitter ever since.
“He’s unique because in our minds the only time he leads off is the first time he’s up,” Stroud said. “He’s a guy who has a knack for seeing a lot of pitches.”
This year, a new crop of Bearcats pitchers needed Armstrong’s guidance behind the plate. Sophomores Ryan Harvel and Lucas Climer relied upon Armstrong to pick their way through a host of talented PAC 8 lineups.
“He had seen teams like San Luis Obispo, Righetti three times. He’d already been through that gambit,” Stroud said. “So he understood what the series were like to play in and what was needed to help them be successful.”
Armstrong also understood what the playoffs were like.
In the third round, Harvel pitched a three-hit complete-game, allowing one run to stifle No. 1 seeded Quartz Hill, which came into the game averaging 9.1 runs per game, putting the Bearcats in the semifinals of the postseason for the first time since 1978.
Armstrong, along with senior left-hander Nolan Binkele, brought leadership to help balance the young team with stability and consistency.
“It’s not so much going out there and saying ‘I’m the leader, here’s how you have to do things.’ It’s more, especially with a group like this — if they respect you as a person or a friend, which we all are — they say, ‘Maybe I want to be like that,’ ” Armstrong said.
Armstrong and Binkele are two of five seniors Paso Robles will lose to graduation. And while Stroud will return a strong core of players next season, he knows that Armstrong’s absence will be felt.
“Losing Mark Armstrong, just losing the person … you don’t replace guys like that,” Stroud said. “They don’t come around very often.
“We were very fortunate to have him and be a part of his high school career.”
Mark Armstrong’s senior season by the numbers
Batting average: .354
Home runs: 3
Stolen bases: 8