Strange as it sounds, Colton Booher was starting to seriously question his ability to hit a baseball Tuesday night.
To such a degree, that following the St. Elmo senior's second strikeout against Brownstown ace Jared Winters, Booher stepped outside the dugout, tossed a baseball up in the air, and proceeded to smash a long drive into the woods adjacent to the first base dugout at Deken Park - just to remind himself what it felt like to make contact.
Booher's teammates could relate, as Winters piled up a career-high 17 strikeouts against his team's archrival. Booher accounted for three of those wiffs, continuing a disturbing trend against the hard-throwing sophomore righty.
"The past couple years, I've had a problem with Jared Winters - and it goes on every game," Booher said.
"I think he struck him out three times at Brownstown earlier this spring and three times tonight," said St. Elmo coach Ryan Beccue.
Fortunately for the Eagles, that trend was bound to come to an end. And it did so in the bottom of the eighth inning, as Booher sent a smash off Winters' glove into centerfield to score pinch runner Bobby Fritcher and give the Eagles a 1-0 "instant classic" victory over the Bombers in the two teams' most recent epic.
Booher came within an out of recording a no-hitter the last time he hooked up with Winters and the Bombers. But the two teams somehow took things to another level in the drama department this time around.
"I just told our guys that this is probably the best high school game I've ever seen played," Brownstown coach Ken Milano said.
And if not for Booher's dogged determination to avoid the dreaded "golden sombrero" in his final at-bat, it's a game that may have never come to an end.
"I don't think I've ever struck out four times in a game, and I was sure as heck not going to do it tonight," Booher said. "I was bound and determined to get a hit my fourth at-bat."
Booher was also bound and determined to match Winters scoreless frame for scoreless frame on the mound.
And though Booher finished with far fewer strikeouts than his counterpart (eight), he was just as dominant, holding the Bombers to just one hit and one walk over eight innings.
Booher got stronger as the game went along, retiring the final 17 batters he faced, earning a tip of the cap from Milano.
"From our point of view, we had outstanding pitching and the fielding was there," Milano said. "Our batting? We were stopped by a better pitcher. So - wow - there's not much more that you can say but that it was a great game all around by everybody."
Booher relied on his infield defense early on, recording 13 infield outs over his first six innings.
Winters needed no such assistance. After Wade Nevergall led off the Eagles half of the first with a single, Winters struck out the next eight batters he faced.
"Everybody was swinging at those high fastballs," Booher said. "We do that against him every time. I don't know what it is. Then he's got a good curveball and a good slider that fakes us out when we're thinking fastball."
But the downside to all of those strikeouts was a pitch count that went well over 100 by the seventh inning, giving the advantage to Booher and the Eagles once the game went into extra innings.
"He struck out a ton of us and did a whale of a job," Beccue said. "But we knew Jared's pitch count was up there with all the strikeouts, and Colton's was in the mid-80s through eight innings, so he was good to go for a while. That does come into play late in the ballgame."
Granted, the contest would not have gone into an extra inning if not for a game-saving play by Bombers shortstop Cody Robbins, who managed to snag an errant throw after backing up third base on a steal attempt.
Still, the Eagles had the winning run on third with just one out, only to see Winters record two more strikeouts to escape the threat unscathed.
But Winters started showing some fatigue in the eighth, giving up a leadoff single to Zach Durbin. Wade Nevergall then moved the tying run into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt.
Winters countered with a strikeout, bringing Booher to the plate and forcing Milano to make a tough decision.
Knowing he had struggled mightily against Winters, the Bomber coach opted not to walk Booher in a pair of similar situations earlier in the game. The gamble paid off on those two occasions, but it wouldn't a third time.
Booher's shot up the middle was nearly snagged by Winters. Unfortunately for the Bombers, Winters got just enough leather on the ball to take away any chance of centerfielder Cole Rhodes gunning down the game-winning run at the plate.
"I'll take Colton in that situation any time. No matter what's been going on in the ballgame, he's the guy for us," Beccue said. "He could have (walked him), and, yeah, I probably would have just because I know what he is capable of. But when you've got Winters dominating him like he has, you can't go away from that, and Winters did a great job."
Despite his sixth-straight dominating performance, Winters suffered the loss. In his past six starts, the sophomore has allowed just four runs in 37 innings, striking out 66 during that span. But he has just a 3-2 record to show for it, with those two losses coming against Booher and the Eagles.
The shutout was Booher's second straight and his third overall this spring. And he is just one of a number of Eagles who has been throwing well.
"We've had very good pitching," said Beccue, whose team moved to 8-7 with its fourth straight win. "We've struggled a few innings here and there on a couple occasions, but they've done a great job keeping us in ballgames.
"That was one of our question marks coming into the year, whether we could get four guys throwing the ball well, and they really have. It's helped us out a lot, because our hitting's kind of been behind this spring."
The rare night game drew a large crowd and Beccue indicated the two teams would schedule more contests under the lights in the future.
"We've tried to do this at least one or two times every year, and we try to get teams that are our rivals," Beccue said. "It does bring out a good crowd and is a lot of fun."
ST. ELMO RESULTS
St. Elmo 5, Shelbyville 3
Adam Seibert's two-run homer highlighted a four-run St. Elmo fourth, as the Eagles moved to the .500 mark by winning their third straight.
St. Elmo's fourth-inning rally erased an early 2-0 deficit, and David Cameron and Colton Booher made the lead stand up.
Cameron picked up the victory, allowing no earned runs on five hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings. The senior righty struck out four and walked three.
"David pitched real well today and gave us a chance to win," Beccue said.
Booher closed the game out with 1 1/3 innings of hitless relief, striking out a pair and walking none on his way to a save.
The Eagles managed just four hits, but their safeties - particularly Siebert's round-tripper - were timely.
"Adam came through with the big home run that really got us going," Beccue said.
St. Elmo 6, Stew-Stras 0
Booher tossed a three-hit shutout and the Eagles' offensive awakening continued in a great all-around effort.
"This was our biggest win of the season so far," Beccue said. "The boys really showed up to play ball today."
Booher gave himself all the support he'd need with an RBI single during a two-run St. Elmo first inning, and Dustin Blankenship added insurance with a two-run single in the third. The Eagles tacked on insurance runs in the sixth and seventh, thanks to RBIs by Zach Durbin and Fletcher Morrison, respectively.
Blankenship finished 2-for-3 to lead an offensive attack that continued the momentum generated by a 20-hit outburst the day before.
"Our hitting is coming around," Beccue said. "Now, as long as we don't get rained out a whole bunch, then maybe we will continue to see progress."
Booher walked two and struck out three, throwing 95 pitches in seven innings.
St. Elmo 16, Windsor 4
The Eagles banged out a season-high 20 hits, as 12 players had at least one hit and six had multi-hit games in a romp of Windsor.
"Everyone contributed to the win today," Beccue said. "We brought our hitting shoes with us. I don't remember ever having 20 hits in one game."
Booher led the way, finishing 4-for-4 with a double, homer and two RBIs. Trey Wright added three hits - including two doubles and three RBIs - in six at-bats, while Robby Stolte finished 2-for-5 with four RBIs.
Fletcher Morrison chipped in three hits and an RBI, while Nevergall was 2-for-5 with an RBI and Adam Seibert drove in two runs and scored three others.
Blankenship was the benefactor of all the offense, improving to 2-0 on the spring by allowing six hits and one earned run in six innings.
Mulberry Grove 0
Robbins and Carl Sefton combined to go 5-for-5 from the No. 8 and 9 spots in the batting order, as the Bombers rolled past the Aces.
Robbins had two doubles in as many at-bats, including a three-run two-bagger in the first. The sophomore finished with five RBIs on the day.
Sefton finished 3-for-3 with an RBI, as did senior Jared Kious, who scored three runs.
Wes Kistler picked up the victory, striking out 12 while allowing just one hit and a walk in five innings, and the senior southpaw helped his own cause by going 2-for-3 with a triple and an RBI.
Cole Rhodes chipped in a triple and two RBIs in three at-bats.
Brownstown 7, Ramsey 0
Jared Winters won for the fourth time in as many starts, striking out 15 and walking none on his way to a two-hit shutout.
Bryce Mason and Sefton led a 14-hit Bomber attack, as each went 3-for-4 with three steals. Sefton added a double and two RBIs, as Brownstown cruised despite playing without five senior starters, who were out of town on their senior trip.