Ace pitchers give Eastern baseball a 1-2 punch
Team leans heavily on two top hurlers
The whispers and rumors began before anyone at Eastern York had actually talked to the new kid in town.
The new kid played varsity baseball as a freshman, they heard.
He pitched for Penn Manor, they heard.
He was good, they heard. Well, really good, maybe even great.
"Oh, we knew about him," Eastern catcher Justin Lusk said. "We knew."
"We knew something was different about him. All the hype, all the videos we watched. But I never thought he'd be this good."
Lusk didn't doubt what he saw online, it's just that things like this don't always work out in Wrightsville.
"All these big expectations, Eastern doesn't always have a good rep," Lusk said.
Then everyone met this new kid, Brandon Knarr. And they just knew.
"First time we saw him pitch, we were like, 'Whoa, this guy has it,'" Eastern York junior Drake Renn said.
Knarr left no doubts. During his sophomore season last year, he struck out 17 of the 18 outs recorded in a six-inning no-hitter.
"When Brandon came in one of the first things we did was each player introduced themselves, and right there he became part of our team," Eastern York coach Blaine Garner said.
Knarr committed to Notre Dame in September, noting he didn't even have the school on his radar until they pursued him during a series of showcase tournaments that ranged from Florida, Georgia and Indiana last summer. He's continued to stand out this year, striking out 19 in a two-hit, complete-game shutout Monday.
With Knarr, Eastern went from being a good team to potentially a great one, but it's also been a struggle to reach the playoffs because as a Class AAA school it has a number of games against Class AA teams. Eastern has little room for error. It missed out on a potential District 3 appearance last year by perhaps one victory, even though six of the 16 teams in the tournament had more than the six losses Eastern posted. The Knights could find themselves in a familiar position this season, needing to win as many games as possible just to crack the top 16 this season.
Yet, Eastern opponents don't have just one pitcher to fear, they have two.
• • •
Colby Shimmel was raised in Eastern York, the only home he's ever known.
He's headed to Texas to pitch next year, but even the big move across the country has roots in where he grew up and who he is. His cousin Jaron Shimmel pitched at Hill College (Hillsboro, Texas), a junior college about 60 miles south of Dallas.
"Their coach is a good coach for pitchers, see if I can gain velocity and see where that takes me," Shimmel said.
If all goes as planned, ShimmeI will be looking to pick a school where he can finish his degree or perhaps even be drafted in Major League Baseball's amateur draft in just two years. The Hill College website touts its record of pushing players toward Division I programs and the MLB draft, with links to all the former Rebels who made those moves. Either course would suit Shimmel.
Batters in the YAIAA and surrounding schools might say he's good enough already. His five-inning no-hitter in March against Columbia featured 15 strikeouts, with Shimmel recording every out by strikeout.
"Just got out there, and I got a fastball I could spot," Shimmel said of his no-hitter. "Around the fourth inning I realized I had something special going."
Lusk, who had caught Shimmel before they reached high school, knew the whole time.
"That was pretty fun, oh yeah I knew about it," Lusk said. "I had it in the back of my mind, but I didn't want to bring it up for fear he'd start thinking about it."
It turns out there was no drama. No batted balls in play. Just one walk. Using his arsenal of fastball, circle change-up, curveball and split-fingered fastball, the 6-foot-4 right-hander breezed through for the win.
"Oh, catching Colby is pretty easy," Lusk said. "He's pretty much in control."
• • •
Knarr seems unfazed looking back at the last two or three years.
Uprooted and moved in the midst of high school?
"We just liked it over here, so that was the good news," Knarr said.
Needing to make new friends, in a new hometown?
"Everybody made it great, coach made it great and the team welcomed me with open arms," Knarr said.
The baseball diamond was never really a problem since he came to Eastern. The growing pains happened years before, during his final year of junior high and first year of high school.
"I could throw strikes, but I was just a little wild," Knarr said smiling. "My eighth-grade year I was actually able to throw strikes, during freshman year I got myself figured out. I think I just started to get a feel for my body more."
Now he has this thing he can do with a baseball. A 5-foot-11 left-hander, his curveball appears in the strike zone one moment and then moves. His catcher, Lusk, describes it as a sweeping motion.
"When it's on, it's hard to catch, hard to hit," Lusk said. "He's one who makes adjustments throughout the game to make sure all his pitches are on."
So it shouldn't be any surprise what Knarr unfurled Monday, striking out 19 of a possible 21 batters against Biglerville, the YAIAA Division IV leader.
• • •
It's a difficult year.
"There's a little bit more expectations this year," Shimmel said. "Last year, coming in we expected to win. People on the outside might not have expected it, but we expected it.
"We knew it. We saw the talent, we saw the heart we played with. Whenever you get a team and they all have the same mentality to win, it's a recipe for success."
Everyone expects great things from Eastern. They went from an up-and-coming team that not everyone knew about to a preseason title contender in one year.
Some of the younger players, like junior Wyatt Smith have seen big improvements in just one year. He figured big in a walk-off win Wednesday, hitting a double and inside-the-park home run.
"I went from a joke last year, I couldn't hit a curveball," Smith said. "This year, I guess I'm taking them yard.
"Last year I couldn't stop striking out, and this year I can't stop hitting."
Yet the increased expectations have added a new level of difficulty for Eastern.
"It's a little more difficult, we're not a surprise team anymore," Garner said. "This year we're getting the best pitchers, everyone is gearing up to knock us off. And that's what we're facing every game."
But there have been hiccups along the way this season. Eastern is tied for the Division III lead, but the Knights have also lost five games.
"We have the pitching, it's there," Drake Renn said after an early-season loss to Fairfield. "We just have to follow it up in the field."
The team has all the playoff potential to cause nightmares since it has two dominating pitchers. But just making the playoffs could be a struggle.
"We came up short last year when we felt we had a team that could do some damage if we got in," Garner said. "This year we're hoping to get in there and make some noise."