In 2012, the Butler baseball team relied on a core of seven senior starters to carry it to the Bulldogs’ most recent winning season and playoff appearance. But even with all of the leadership at the top of that senior-laden team, it was the emergence of then-sophomore shortstop Jacob Whittingham that may have made the biggest impact on the successful season.
Whittingham had played on varsity at the end of his freshman season the previous year, but had only gotten one at bat and appeared in a handful of games. Undeterred, he came back the following spring and earned the starting shortstop spot sparking an auspicious debut during which he finishing second on the team with a .346 batting average, while collecting 27 hits and nine RBIs.
Whittingham’s solid play earned him all-Southwestern 4A honors, a distinguished feat for anyone in the baseball-rich Southwestern 4A conference and a rare occurance for a sophomore, especially one who other teams didn’t know much about before the season began.
“He was under the radar some that year,” third-year coach Rick Sambrotto said. “He had played up a couple of games as a freshman, but I don’t think people still knew much about him. There were a bunch of seniors on that team his sophomore year, so he kind of laid back, hit down in the order and probably didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure.”
Whittingham admitted that he wasn’t the most widely-recognized Bulldog or the one opponents were game planning to stop during his sophomore season. But he carried on in relative anonymity and delivered a remarkably solid season.
But the success he enjoyed brought with it added pressure.
“It was awesome and it was special for sure,” he said of his all-conference honor. “I was the youngest player on the team that year and just kind of went out and played. Last year, I felt I needed to have the same season or have even a better year, so I think it put a little more pressure on me to perform.”
Last year Whittingham was still third on the team with a .303 batting average, but his production slipped as he drove in just three runs with teams focused on him, making the shortstop one of the top focal points of their defensive game plans.
“Last year it was a little different for him,” Sambrotto said. “The expectations were a little bit higher and he was hurt some last year. We didn’t find out until later on, but his back was bothering him and that was part of it. That hurt him at the plate and in the field some, too.”
But it wasn’t just Whittingham that struggled with expectations last year. The Bulldogs finished 7-16 – their first losing season since 2010 – and won just five of 14 conference games.
But this season has gone much differently for Whittingham and the Bulldogs.
“I’m just comfortable this year, that’s really all that it is,” Whittingham said. “I’ve found a swing that I feel comfortable with and I’m taking a good approach to the plate, and trying to stick with that every day.”
And the results of the new swing and more laid-back approach have paid dividends for the senior and his teammates.
Butler started the year 6-1 and, despite a few mid-season setbacks, is 9-6 overall and positioned fourth in the always-competitive Southwestern 4A standings.
A big reason for the turnaround is Whittingham, who leads the team with a .531 batting average and 16 RBIs, while also contributing 26 hits, 17 runs scored and six doubles.
“This year I’m trying to go all out,” he said. “I’ve changed my stance, evening it out a little more, but it’s my final season so I want to go out with a big year.
“We have a bunch of guys around me who are doing well and I think we all have the same role, we’re trying to go out, get our hits and do it as a team effort.”
While Whittingham is leading the way, a number of players are swinging hot bats. Senior Garrett Wise is batting .438 with nine RBIs, but Dean Looney (.421, 13 RBIs), Brady Cottom (.455, 12 runs scored), Taylor Crowell (.407), Hunter Davis (.368), Jarrett Norman (.316 eight RBIs), Jordan Huntley (.386, 17 runs) and Kobe Phillips (.333, four home runs) have all had standout seasons for a team that has nobody with more than three at bats hitting less than .333 on the year.
“I’m definitely feeling more relaxed, but I think the other guys are comfortable, too, and we’re just trying to all have fun and win some games,” Whittingham said.
The Bulldogs, even despite a few struggles, have the ability to beat anyone with an offense that collectively hits .408 and averages nearly nine runs per game.
Sambrotto knows the fate of the Bulldog success lies on the pitching mound and in the defense behind it, another area Whittingham is helping to strengthen.
After committing 19 errors the previous two years combined – including 11 as a junior – Whittingham has shored up his defense, committing just five errors while turning five double plays already.
“He’s really worked on his defense and I can really tell he’s improving on it – his footwork is much better,” Sambrotto said. “He’s kind of a quiet guy and we’ve pushed him every year to be more active and involved in the middle of the field and he’s doing that this year. He’s communicating with the pitchers and fielders and he’s doing a whole lot better there.
“Jacob’s having a great year all around for us. He’s got good hand-eye coordination and he’s kind of a streaky hitter and right now he’s on a good streak for us. We’ve played around with moving him to a couple spots in the lineup and it’s working out pretty well.”
With the type of season he’s putting together, Whittingham said he hopes to earn another all-conference bid, something he has probably all but wrapped up after the scorching start to his season.
“It’s my goal going into the season and that would be awesome. Not a lot of guys get to do it and it would mean a lot to me,” Whittingham said. “The awards are good, but I think we’re all doing what we can to get some wins and show what we can do.”
While Whittingham is certainly doing his part – leading a potent offense and manning the middle of the infield – he said the Bulldogs are heading into this week’s East Meck Spring Break Tournament and the second half of the conference schedule with confidence and a sense of urgency to make this year a season to remember.
“I think we lost focus for a little bit, but we definitely got that back. We’re going to keep that going, no matter who we’re playing and string some wins together,” Whittingham said.
“Our goal is to get to the playoffs and surprise people and get through a few rounds together. This is the last time us seniors will play together so we want to make it count.”