Friday, June 04, 2010

SPORTS>>Injuries rip Gwatney

Leader sportswriter

Baseball teams normally acquire bumps and bruises through the course of a season. But for Gwatney Chevrolet, there is already an extensive injury line with no waiting.

Key injuries and low numbers at the 18-19-year-old level have led to a 0-4 start for the Gwatney senior American Legion team, while the junior team has benefited from a high number of 17-year-olds and posted a 5-2 record through the first two weeks.

Most of the pitchers are nursing sore arms, and injuries to Nick Rodriguez and Patrick Castleberry have hurt both squads in the field and at the plate.

Rodriguez was injured during recent spring football practice at Jacksonville High School, and Castleberry injured his ankle in an early Legion practice. Neither has seen action this summer and Castleberry could be out for up to a month. There is also the fatigue factor in the bullpen.

“The sad part about it is, all those kids with sore arms – the pitching we have, that’s them,” Gwatney coach Bob Hickingbotham said. “It’s basically the same kids that pitched at the high school except for one.”

Steven Swaggerty was ineligible to play baseball for Jacksonville High School his senior year after transferring from North
Pulaski. But he can now join Red Devils Michael Lamb, Jessie Harbin and North Pulaski’s A.J. Allen on the Gwatney pitching roster.

The junior Chevy Boys enter this weekend’s invitational tournament at Dupree Park on a three-game winning streak. They began the summer with a loss to Sylvan Hills before going 2-1 at a tournament there, and defeated Maumelle and Searcy early in the week.

There are 23 players on this year’s Gwatney roster with a majority of them 17-year-olds. There are five 19-year-olds, two 18-year-olds, and 10 17-year-olds. There are six players in ages 14 through 16, two at each age.

“Right now we’re struggling to get a bunch on the field that can play,” Hickingbotham said. “We’re having to use the same kids each night in both ball games, and we’re just about to wear them out right now.”

Having Rodriguez and Castleberry out at the same time has been especially difficult for Gwatney, as the two are the most experienced catchers. It’s a situation desperate enough for Hickingbotham to try career outfielders like Alex Tucker behind the plate, with mixed results.

“We’ve been trying to put somebody back there who can catch, and it’s been tough,” Hickingbotham said. “We’ve tried three or four different kids, and some of them haven’t caught before or very little. They’re having a hard time blocking the baseball and keeping passed balls from happening.”

Rodriguez can also help the pitching situation when he returns, and he and Castleberry are two of the stronger batters for Gwatney.

“He’s been in a boot but now he’s got that off,” Hickingbotham said of Castleberry. “I think he’s pushing it maybe a little faster than the doctor would like, but he wants to play so bad.”

Jacob Abrahamson, Devon McClure, Harbin and Castleberry are all eligible to take part in the Xtra Innings Summer Classic at Arkansas State in Jonesboro on July 5-6, which also coincides with the junior Legion district tournament.

Any player who takes part in the annual showcase will be ineligible to participate in the junior tournament, but can still play in senior Legion tournaments. The junior level also has two new teams in Rose Bud and Heber Springs.

With an average of four games a week for the juniors and seniors in a shortened, eight weeks of summer baseball, proper rest and player availability have also become a concern.

“It has an effect on us; we can’t substitute them as much,” Hickingbotham said.

“I’m optimistic about it, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you’ve got to work through those kind of things the best you can. And the only way you can do it is you’ve got to get out on the practice field.”