Palm Beach on the prowl: Pitching, defense, hitting key for Panthers
Pitching, defense, hitting key for Panthers
Way back in March, thoughts of Palm Beach (Fla.) State College making the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series appeared to be laughable.
After winning the Gulf District tournament, the Panthers had the last laugh.
Ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll, Palm Beach State was expected to be a juco power, but the Panthers quickly plummeted out of the top 20.
“It was a struggle,” Panthers coach Kyle Forbes said. “We lost four in a row and it felt like 14. Everything was going bad at the same time.”
Palm Beach State (38-19) finally came together, benched the adversity and won the Gulf District title game 3-0 over State College of Florida to earn its first trip to Grand Junction.
As the state runner-up in 2012, expectations were high for Forbes’ squad this season. Things went bad quickly for the Panthers, but hope never vanished.
They lost two pitchers to injury, including a 96-mph fastball guy who went down with Tommy John surgery. The ensuing funk consumed the team for a big chunk of March.
“You have to keep going,” Forbes said. “We had a strange stretch when we had 27 hits, then we had a combined three hits in two games. Baseball is a crazy game.”
Pitcher J.D. Underwood, the Florida College System Activities Association’s top pitcher and district tournament’s outstanding pitcher, stayed confident even during the choppy times.
“We knew what we were capable of doing. When we went through that rough four-game skid, we knew we could turn it around,” he said. “We stayed humble and good things happened.”
Forbes had four key sophomores returning, but it was a group of freshmen that he hoped would come around. It took time, but they soon jelled, as did the sophomores.
Underwood, a sophomore, was at the center of the team’s resurgence, both on the mound and at the plate.
He had two of the most impressive back-to-back games of the year in junior college baseball. On April 5, he threw a complete-game four hitter with 17 strikeouts and followed that up five days later with a no-hitter against traditionally tough Miami-Dade.
It was Underwood’s first no-hitter since he was a high school freshman. He comes into the JUCO World Series with a 1.55 ERA in 110 innings, with 103 strikeouts and only 12 walks. He won 10 games and pitched seven complete games.
Hitting out of the three-spot as a DH or first baseman, Underwood hit .346 and led the team with 48 RBI.
“He’s a very compete pitcher,” Forbes said about Underwood, who is headed to University of Miami next year. “He throws four pitches for strikes and he’s a very good hitter.”
Forbes said his squad is built for the Panthers’ home park, where the wind blows in from the coastline.
“If you hit fly balls there, you’re in trouble,” he said.
The coach, in his third season with the Panthers, said he understands Suplizio Field can be a home-run friendly park, but he has a simple formula for scoring runs.
“Get them on, get them over and get them in,” Forbes said.
It might be a baseball cliché but Forbes preaches the most tried-and-true philosophy for success.
“Solid starting pitching, good defense and timely hitting, that’s what we try to do,” he said.
The ignition key for the Panthers’ offense is Michael Stemle, who hit .352 in the leadoff spot. His singles and walks often turn into a trip to second with his speed. He led the nation in stolen bases with 47.
The Panthers’ defensive success begins where all great defenses do — up the middle. Shortstop Michael Mooney (his two bothers were All-Americans at Palm Beach State) and second baseman Brett Lashley take care of the middle infield and Stemle roams center field.
Forbes calls Stemle a “tremendous defender.”
The No. 2 pitcher for the Panthers is sophomore right-hander Ryan Pistey, who finished at 10-2 on the season with a 2.07 ERA and 70 strikeouts.
“He had a tremendous year,” Forbes said. “He’s a strike thrower and works ahead of the hitters.”
As a team with high expectations early, only to see some major adversity, then finally peak and punch its ticket to JUCO, Forbes said it made the journey all that much more satisfying.
“In our situation, we’re state runner-up last year, so to come back and win it this year, and to win it after what we went through, absolutely makes it sweeter,” Forbes said.
Even though this is Palm Beach College’s first trip to JUCO, Stemle will be making his second straight world series appearance. He played with the Gordon (Ga.) College last year.
“(Stemle) has told us all about it, so we’re really excited to see it for ourselves,” Underwood said.
Underwood said winning the district title was more special since they came up short last year.
“Watching the dog-pile last year and being in the dog-pile this year, it was unbelievable,” he said.
Forbes said he’s looking forward to his players playing on a much bigger stage when they are at Suplizio Field.
“I want them to enjoy the experience,” he said.
That experience includes playing in front of JUCO’s large crowds, something the Panthers don’t see a lot.
“Our average crowd is about 17,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s usually my wife, two daughters and someone’s neighbor down the street.”
Having struggled early and peaking at the right time, Underwood said it’s nice to come into JUCO with what some could view as a mediocre record.
“It’s a lot more fun being the underdog,” he said.