Seniors Larson, Gehringer helping young Butler baseball team find its way
by Andrew Stark
The Butler Bulldogs entered the 2011-12 baseball season with one of the Southwestern 4A conference’s youngest and most inexperienced teams. Plus, they also were breaking in long-time assistant Rick Sambrotto as a first-year coach. The Bulldogs have experienced some ups and downs as they have started 5-6 overall and 2-4 in conference play.
While the transition hasn’t always been a smooth one, two seniors – right fielder AJ. Larson and center fielder Chase Gehringer – are helping the Bulldogs grow up in a hurry, and are delivering big individual seasons in the process.
Larson, the co-SW4A player of the year last season, is hitting .345 with a home run, seven RBIs and four stolen bases. Last season, Gehringer led Butler in hits, stolen bases and batting average and is having a strong senior campaign as well, hitting .353 with a home run, six RBIs and seven stolen bases.
“They are one and two in stolen bases, runs scored, RBIs and average,” Sambrotto said. “They are doing everything and even more than we have been asking of them. They are special players for us.”
The two have been playing together since the seventh grade, which includes the past three years on Butler’s varsity squad. Gehringer has been the Bulldogs’ staring center fielder for the past four years, but this season has brought new challenges for him.
“I have experienced a lot,” Gehringer said, “And this is by far the youngest and least experienced team I have been on here. I know that we can come around, though, so I am not too worried about it.”
Butler has experienced lots of turnover from last year’s team that finished 16-10 and in a tie for third place in the SW4A. Sophomore Jacob Whittingham is the Bulldogs’ new starting shortstop and junior Troy Neal has taken over at second base. Malachi Haines, Andrew Moser, Steven Montanez and Matt Rumble have also played increased roles, but Larson thinks the season will go according to plan.
“I think we have started pretty well,” he said. “If we can consistently hit the ball and get runners on base, we would be really tough to beat. We haven’t done that yet, at least not consistently.”
To Larson’s point, on Tuesday, March 28, the Bulldogs could not get a timely hit and fell to South Mecklenburg, 1-0, on a walk-off hit in the seventh inning.
Larson and Gehringer can get hot at any time, though. Last season, Larson did just that and caught fire as the season wore on. Through a three-game stretch in early April he crushed four home runs and drove in 10 runs. That, in part, led to him being named co-player of the year.
“Last year was great and everything and I did play well,” Larson said. “Honestly, I feel like it is kind of old news. Once the season started, I put it behind me and I am trying to do the same thing this year. I have to if we are going to do well.”
Gehringer said that he needs to step up and become more of a leader for the Bulldogs to become more consistent. Despite his high batting average, he has just five hits in his last 23 at bats.
“I am trying to stay positive and I know that I will be able to break out of it soon,” Gehringer said. “I have been playing a long time and know that I can hit, I just have to keep working at it.”
While the Bulldogs are struggling some at the plate, one thing that is always consistent with both Larson and Gehringer is their defense in the outfield. Against Ardrey Kell, Gehringer lost a ball in the sun that dropped in for a base hit.
“He obviously didn’t see it,” Sambrotto said. “That never happens, ever. If a ball is hit to center he is always going to catch it. He makes up for a lot of mistakes around him and AJ plays a very good defensive outfield too. He has a great arm, teams almost never try to run on him.”
Behind the stellar outfield defense, the pitching staff has done an admirable job. Haines has won three of four decisions and Dalton Eisenbath and Matt Baltimore have one win apiece.
“Our pitching is decent, but if we can step up offensively that would help us a lot,” Larson said. “I feel like our team never really slacks off but the heart is not really always there. We have to step up and stop making physical and mental mistakes.”
Sambrotto said that it has been a transition getting all of the new players up to speed on the varsity level and there have been a few untimely mistakes in close games that have really hurt the Bulldogs. Overall, though, they are not too far off from finding consistent success.
Larson agreed and said it is just a matter of time before everything clicks.
“Our young guys are not used to stepping up,” he said. “For most of them, this is their first time on varsity. That is why Chase and I have to set the tone and start hitting the ball better. Being seniors, this is our time to shine. Obviously we are good ball players and have shown that, we just need to keep after it.”