By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Baseball should be fun, if you ask James Monroe High School coach John Mustain. The Mavericks have been playing as if they’re having fun in this weather-plagued baseball season.
The boys from Lindside have beaten Mount View 5-0 and Bluefield 5-4, and taken a 3-1 loss from Independence, to start out their 2013 campaign.
Last Thursday, a wet infield forced the team to gather on the outfield grass. After catching some fly balls and working on their hitting, Mustain and assistant coach Nick Newberry gave them a break.
Mustain said, “Then they got the whiffle balls out and they started playing little games — and they were having fun! So, you’ve got to do that, (give them) the opportunity to have some fun.”
Three games are scheduled this week, starting with a makeup game at Giles on Wednesday. That’s unusual for spring break week at James Monroe.
“I generally try not to load them up (that) week. I like to give them a little bit of time off,” Mustain said. “I think sometimes people don’t understand that you’ve got to have some time off, too, even during the season.
“A lot of people want to practice every wakin’ minute. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I just believe that sometimes you’ve got to give them some time off. Kind of keep them a little hungry, too.”
“We’re getting them into tee-ball at 4 years old, and everything’s structured. I’d like to see more kids out playing pickup games,” he said, sounding a familiar theme. “In a rural area like this, you just don’t see it much anymore.”
At the high school level in his corner of West Virginia, that makes it hard to find quality pitchers, but he believes he has two in junior Caleb Brown and sophomore Reed McNeer.
“You’re lucky if you can find two starters, and it’s hard to find three. You’d like to have three,” Mustain said. “Sometimes I think that’s the one thing we were missing, three years ago (in a run to the state semifinals), was that third upper-echelon pitcher.”
“Our No. 1 pitcher is Caleb Brown,” Mustain said. “He was kind of a pleasant surprise last year. We really didn’t know who was going to be No. 2 after Ridge (Sibold), and Caleb came on really well for us.
“He’s starting off really well this year,” the coach said. On Friday, Brown allowed a double and five singles in a complete-game win against Bluefield.
Regarding McNeer, Mustain said, “Reed’s grown a lot since last year. And, of course, being a lefty, that makes it even better.”
“I’ve been trying to get these boys to focus on their fastball more, and in particular their two-seam fastball. If you’re a lefty, and you’ve got a good two-seam ball that breaks, it’s going to kind of break away from a right-handed batter and it’s kind of going to have a screwball look to it.”
“Most guys who talk about major league pitching will say, bottom line, you’ve got to establish your fastball. If you’re not doing that, I don’t care how good your curveball is.
“But, even with that, you’ve got to be able to put your fastball where you want it, and it’s got to have some movement to it. If you’re just throwing that straight four-seam fastball, that’s just batting practice. You’ve got to try to keep ’em off balance.”
“But they’ve both, so far, done very well.”
“We’ve got some other kids who, obviously, down the road are going to have to give us some innings. My son (John Mustain), I hope he can give us some innings, and Micah Deskins, and Derek Honaker.”
Freshman Tyler Moore and senior Seth Comer may also put in time on the mound.
Mustain said about this week, “Three games, back-to-back like that, you’re obviously not going to be able to go with just those two, so some other guys are definitely going to get some time — weather permitting.”
The Mavericks were able to get outside only six times prior to last weekend, and a few of those were restricted to the outfield grass.
Mustain said, “We’ve actually been lucky. We’ve been out more than a lot of people have been out, so I can’t really complain too much about that.”
“It’s just been one of those years. It gets kind of old and frustrating, trying to practice in the gym. It’s not like there’s nothing we can do, but there are a lot of things you can’t do. You just get tired of being cooped up inside.”
Now, with rescheduled games included, he said, “We’ve got a couple of five-game weeks. ... That’s going to load us up.”
“We’ve got weeks where we’ve got Bluefield, who’s a sectional opponent, at the beginning of the week, and we’ve got the Coppinger Tournament at the end of the week. So you’re hoping that by that time, Caleb can go at the beginning and the end of the week.”
Mustain noted, “Of course, our hitting’s got to get better, and hopefully that’s going to come on — and I think it will, once we get more games under our belts, and more at-bats.”
“Right now are top two hitters are probably Ryan Page and Reed McNeer. Reed had a really good game against Independence, I think he had a couple of doubles. We had 10 hits against Mount View, but we left a lot of runners on. ...
“We’re seeing pretty decent contact. It’s still cold, and that restricts an already-restricted ball with these new bats.”
“I’m not, by any means, hitting the panic button. I really think we’re going to be all right once we get some games under our belt and seeing more live pitching.”
Batting practice, whether the balls are served up by coaches or a pitching machine, just doesn’t compare to facing an opponent throwing his stuff.
Mustain said, “Hopefully, we can start getting these games going, and get the weather to straighten up, and we can get some games going in a row, and I think that will help.”
There was a lot of learning over the last couple of years, as this year’s returnees replaced a senior-heavy class. Asked if this year’s edition was more mature, Mustain said, “I think so. I’ve seen some kids who are looking better this year, they really are.”
“Devin Carr is playing left field for us. Devin was never known for having a real strong arm, but his arm strength has gotten better. He’s making a lot more accurate throws. He had a nice diving catch against Independence the other day.”
“John (Mustain) playing center field, he’s got a real strong arm.” Mustain also described “a real good catch” made by right fielder Derek Honaker against Independence, a running grab at the foul line. “You don’t see catches like that much anymore.”
About the infield, Mustain said, “They’ve made a few errors, but I think they’re going to be fine.”
Cory Lilly holds down third, Micah Deskins is at shortstop, Ryan Wickline handles second base, and first base will probably be split by Brown and McNeer to “save their arms a little bit,” Mustain said.
“Reed’s a real good outfielder, too,” the coach said. “He would really help us in the outfield, but he’s such a good first baseman ... .”
Mustain relies on Page, a senior, for solid performances as catcher and as a hitter, stating that he has a lot of the same qualities as former all-state Mavericks catcher Caleb Ballard.
“He does real well behind the plate,” Mustain said about Page. “He has a good, strong arm, and he’s a very good catcher. I believe he could play in the (West Virginia) Conference.”
“Nick and I try to talk to him a good bit about when to throw this pitch, when to throw that pitch.” Mustain said that his pitchers are now “doing a lot better job at pitching, rather than throwing, and that’s a big key.”
Overall, Mustain said, “My main focus is ... teams that are in our sectional. You want to try to get that number one (sectional) seed if possible, so you really kind of want to go with No. 1 against those teams.”
“The bottom line is, you get to that time of year, and you’ve got to win. It’s just as simple as that.”
— Contact Tom Bone at