Highlands baseball warming up as WPIAL playoffs approach

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Thursday, May 13, 2021 | 7:10 PM


Highlands is starting to hit its stride, and with the WPIAL baseball playoffs right around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Since a 12-5 loss to Freeport on May 4, the Golden Rams have been on a tear. They took two from Section 1-4A champion North Catholic, 7-0 and 7-3, last week. Then they got revenge on Freeport on Monday with a 15-0 victory.

On Wednesday, the Golden Rams tallied another shutout in a 7-0 nonsection victory over Chartiers Valley.

Highlands coach Jeff Campbell credits the offense.

“Our bats are really starting to jell,” Campbell said. “We had some success hitting the baseball earlier this year, but a lot of our production came from one or two guys. Now, we are getting a lot offensive production from guys one through nine. The balls that we were hitting hard right at people before are finally starting to find the gaps and reaching the grass.”

Over the past four games, the Golden Rams have outscored opponents 36-3. They’ve scored at least seven runs in all four games, and as of Thursday had six players hitting for a .300-plus average. Senior D.J. Loveland leads the way with a .404 batting average, and junior Jett Slepak has hit for a .396 average with seven doubles, 11 RBIs and one home run.

The Golden Rams have pitched three shutouts in the past week, and the combination of Slepak, Tanner Nulph, Jimmy Kunst and Trent Bielak have been big on the mound.

In Highlands’ first win over North Catholic, Nulph allowed just two hits in 5 1/3 innings of work while striking out 13. Bielak relieved Nulph and finished off the victory, one of Highlands’ biggest of the season, and threw 1 2/3 innings of work while allowing one hit and striking out three.

Highlands’ pitching has been one of the strong suits all season, and Nulph said the success has come from preparation.

“It’s the main thing. I mean, I’ll still get my workout in beforehand, but if I can, I’ll text players from other teams that I’m friends with that have played the team I’m throwing against just to get any type of scouting report I can,” Nulph said. “I mean, for that North Catholic game I went to their game two nights before to see what their hitters could do, and we all kind of do the same thing. You just have to execute once you get prepared.”

In their last four games, Highlands starters have gone five-plus innings and kept their opponents off the scoreboard. Nulph threw a four-inning complete game against Freeport in their 15-0 win. Against Chartiers Valley on Wednesday night, Kunst and Slepak combined to throw a three-hitter.

Slepak throw 5 1/3 innings of two-hit ball and struck out 12 before Kunst closed the door by striking out four over the course of 1 2/3 innings.

But one of the bigger factors for Highlands moving forward will be its focus.

“We’ve realized that this is baseball and anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” Campbell said. “So, we need to come prepared each and every day. We need to be ready to go and ready to bring our best to the table.”

The Golden Rams will learn their playoff fate Friday during the TribLive HSSN baseball pairings show at 3 p.m.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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