On Friday, May 10, the Dickinson High boys baseball team will travel to Williston to begin its toughest stretch of the season.
Playing eight games in a six-day stretch, the Midgets will face four squads with a combined overall record of 50-24 and a 34-18 mark in conference play.
However, all of Dickinson's future opponents trail the team in the West Region standings as the Midgets, filled with inexperienced and young players, are surprisingly on top the league at 10-0.
"Our mantra here at Dickinson has always been, 'Let's get better every day.' The next day, we want to be better," head coach Pete Dobitz said during practice on Wednesday. "It's always been a game of progression, so we want to be our best at the end of the year, but it's kind of been nice that the mental side and toughness side has shown up early in the year."
With only three seniors on the roster, Dobitz believes the "lumps" his youthful bunch took last season, and in Legion baseball during the summer, have only made them better this year. The results on the field seem to bear that out, as the Midgets have improved in virtually every statistical category, and none more drastically than pitching.
Through 24 games last season, Dickinson throwers had a 5.82 ERA, allowed 223 hits and 181 runs (126 earned), while recording 91 strikeouts. The orange and black staff is on a much better pace through 16 games this season, relinquishing 78 hits, 79 runs (47 earned) while collecting 85 strikeouts and slicing its combined earned run average down to 3.17. Additionally, the stuff the Midgets are delivering to the plate is filthier, recording 130 swings-and-misses compared to just 123 in 1,000 more pitches last season.
"Our pitching depth has really stood out in the fact we have guys that could pitch that we haven't really used a lot this year simply because the guys that have pitched for us have done a good job of eating up innings and being efficient on the mound in terms of not throwing a lot of pitches and throwing strikes," Dobitz remarked. "We're still walking some people, but that's something we've been able to maintain and control."
With 80 walks so far through the 2019 campaign, Dickinson will likely surpass last year's total of 100, but even with occasional control issues, the team's current WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.52 is down considerably from 2.13 last year.
Also down is the opponent's batting average, as the Midgets are holding teams to a .195 clip compared to .332 in 2018. That figure is aided by the fact that opponents are hitting just .173 against the Midgets' four leaders in innings pitched, senior Morgan Wardner, juniors Isaac Gjerde and Kobe Krenz, and sophomore Nick Deschamp.
"For the most part, we're just hitting our spots and have so many good, solid pitchers all-around. We're just throwing where we are supposed to throw," Deschamp said.
Furthermore, Dickinson has made gains offensively from a year ago, improving its team batting average from .260 to .285, clubbing 24 extra-base hits through 16 games compared to 26 through all of 2018, and scoring ten more runs (117) than it did last season (107).
The uptick in production is partially due to the bats at the top of the lineup.
The team's usual 2-3-4 hitters of Krenz, senior infielder Cody Maier and senior outfielder Justin Berger are all hitting over .350, have an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .956, and are responsible for 41 runs driven in. Meanwhile, leadoff hitter Troy Berg sets the table. The freshman third baseman paces the team with a .476 batting average and 18 runs scored.
"My role is important, because the team expects me to get on base so I can get the first run," Berg said. "It's unusual for me because I've always been a three- or four-hitter, but it's something I've kind of grown into and gotten better at as the season has gone on."
If there's one area the team has struggled, it's swiping bags. Graduating seniors Colton Jones and Tristen Brunk each had double-figure steal totals last season, helping the team to 87 steals while being caught just 14 times. This season, that ratio has dropped to 37 steals with the team getting caught 12 times.
"The caught-stealing stuff, some of that is mental awareness and not really paying attention to reads on pitchers," Dobitz said. "Some of that is disappointing, but it's something we've begun to work on in practice a little bit more these last couple of weeks."
Whether the running game pain gets alleviated or not, the Midgets know that they have to be sharp over the next week. Beginning with its road doubleheader against the Coyotes, Dickinson will play Bismarck High and Bismarck Century at home on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Dobitz says he will lean on his pitching depth and use arms he hasn't had to so far, particularly during the back-to-back.
Facing that trio in non-conference action earlier this season, the WDA leaders dropped five of six contests.
"We've been taking it as is, like those are normal games," Berg said. "Century was a close game, so we know we could beat them. Bismarck High, we know we could beat them because we 10-run them. And Williston was just early in the year; it was our first game so we weren't really ready and were adjusting to things. They should be good games and hopefully they go our way."