Liberty Hill pitching staff thriving under Kristan’s care

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Slater Foust made a triumphant return to the lineup at the Llano Tournament this past weekend, collecting five hits in nine at bats and driving in a team high four runs. Foust was also effective on the mound, throwing a complete game and striking out nine in a 9-1 win over Marble Falls on March 3. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Slater Foust made a triumphant return to the lineup at the Llano Tournament this past weekend, collecting five hits in nine at bats and driving in a team high four runs. Foust was also effective on the mound, throwing a complete game and striking out nine in a 9-1 win over Marble Falls on March 3. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By MIKE SCHOEFFEL

It’s been a while since Liberty Hill baseball coach Mike Kristan has been in charge of the pitching staff.

Long-time pitching coach Jake Ramirez left in the offseason, forcing Kristan, who won his 200th game as a head coach last season, back into a role that he hasn’t assumed in over a decade.

So far, so good.

The Panthers are off to a 6-2 start this season, thanks to some memorable performances from Kristan’s hurlers. This past weekend may have been its strongest showing to date, as the Panthers allowed just four earned runs in 19 innings of work, good for an earned run average of 1.89. Liberty Hill went 3-0 in the tournament, beating Marble Falls, Big Spring, and Comfort.

“I think the staff did everything we asked of them this weekend,” said Kristan. “Our top two guys threw well, and we had other guys come in to get the job done when called upon.”

Senior Slater Foust is the most experienced pitcher on the roster, having spent last season as the Panthers’ number two starter. His status as elder statesman of the staff showed at the Llano Tournament, as he threw a complete game against Comfort, striking out nine without allowing an earned run.

Joining Foust as the top of the rotation will be Nathan Flake, a junior with limited varsity experience. Said Kristan: “He played JV and traveled with the varsity during tournaments last year. He had a back issue and didn’t pitch much in 2015.”

Flake impressed in his lone start last weekend, throwing six strong innings and striking out seven in a victory over Comfort.

“We expect to get a lot of innings out of Nathan this year,” confirmed Kristan.

While Foust and Flake will lead the charge, Kristan will look to a number of other hurlers for contributions. Luke Alexander, a “junkball, knuckleballer, come-in-anytime-you-need-him kind of kid,” according to the coach, will eat up significant innings. Zach Smith will assume the role of left-handed specialist. Connor Thompson may see time as at closer and “third or fourth starter,” while Jaret Huddleston and Turner Gryseels will fill in as needed.

A deep bench is often considered the key to harboring a successful pitching staff at the high school level, considering pitchers often play other positions when they aren’t on the mound. Kristan, a wizened coaching veteran, is well aware of this.

“It all goes back to depth,” he said. “Since Slater also plays third base, I know I have a few guys that can take over that role when he’s on the mound. And when I need [starting shortstop] Connor Thompson to throw a few innings, there are guys who can come in and play short.”

One of the biggest adjustments Kristan has had to make in his return to the pitching coach role is post-game recovery protocol. Pitching puts immeasurable strain on an arm — especially the arm of a teenage kid — so adopting an effective post game routine in the days following a start is key to a quick recovery and injury prevention.

“I’m still old school,” he said. “I know there’s research out there that suggests jogging isn’t so great, but I’ll have to do a little research myself to see if I agree with that. In general, though, conditioning evolves as the season does. Our pitchers will do pole runs, sprints, band work, depending on what time of year it is.”

“We don’t do the exact same thing every day,” he added. “We build on stuff. We want to be as healthy as possible because we plan to be playing for a long time.”

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