It’s been an up and down season for the Atascadero High baseball team — to be expected on a team full of youngsters.
The Greyhounds field a team made up of six sophomores, five juniors and just four seniors. Three of those sophomores were playing junior varsity at this time last year.
But it’s all part of the plan for head coach Casey Belt, now in his second year at the helm, as he looks to continue to build a program that limped to a 7-20 overall record three years ago, resulting in a second-to-last finish in PAC 8 play.
It’s been junior Lucas Sprouse who has helped provide much of the balance, especially of late as the Greyhounds find themselves in playoff contention for the second straight season despite losing five league games this year by two runs or less.
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Sprouse lost most of his sophomore season to a broken wrist suffered playing football (he’s a pretty good cornerback) and has the scar on inside of his left wrist to prove it. The injury required surgery but hasn’t hindered his junior season, one in which he has blossomed.
Sprouse leads the team in batting average (.340) and has been solid on the mound, maintaining a 3.50 ERA on the year. He has 10 stolen bases, eight doubles, a home run and three triples, including an RBI triple in Atascadero’s 5-3 loss to Righetti on Friday. Sprouse faked a bunt, then pulled back and launched a ball into the left-center gap.
“In order to hit the ball, it has to be a strike. My mindset is to just find a strike, you know what I mean?” Sprouse said.
Most of all, Belt likes Sprouse’s consistency this year.
“Like most baseball players, he went into a little bit of a dive, then he started working his way back up this week,” Belt said.
Also the starting pitcher, Sprouse struck out four in four innings against Righetti, walking two and allowing two earned runs. The junior — who also plays shortstop when he isn’t pitching — uses location and changing speeds to baffle hitters, rather than overpowering them.
“He has a little curveball and a little changeup, and he mixed it well,” Belt said.
Sprouse tossed a complete game the week before in a loss against Paso Robles, throwing 94 pitches, so he had a short leash in Friday’s game.
He threw first-pitch strikes and had the Righetti hitters off balance and in front of his curve until the fourth inning, when Righetti strung together their first solid contact of the day and tied the game 3-3.
“I like getting in front of the count because working from behind is hard,” Sprouse said.
Sprouse also said being pitcher gives him an advantage at the plate because he has a good idea of what’s coming.
Belt hopes to lead Atascadero to its second straight playoff berth since he took over, and his young group is currently in the hunt this year with Righetti, St. Joseph and Pioneer Valley all vying for the fourth and final spot. Getting a win Friday over Righetti would have been a big step in that direction.
But with players like Sprouse learning on the job, he’s leading the Greyhounds into their upcoming series with second-place Arroyo Grande and first-place San Luis Obispo with confidence.
“We’re playing fairly good baseball, and we have good competition,” Belt said.