In a game that simultaneously thrives on the individual and teamwork, everything in baseball runs through the pitcher.
Alone on the mound, a hurler is the key instrument of both offense and defense, his performance the barometer of what you need both at the plate and in the field.
With games set to begin today at the Lake Country Conference, all eyes will be trained on the ace.
Get a good one, and you have a shot at winning, no matter who you play.
Just ask Plainview coach Brent Hackney. When he throws senior James Bowker, the numbers play into his favor, but so does the atmosphere.
"He's got a mound presence that's a little intimidating," Hackney said. "Coaches have told me their kids get intimidated by it."
Bowker's numbers have certainly lived up to his reputation. Through 29 innings, Bowker has a 4-1 record, 44 strikeouts and has allowed just one earned run for a miniscule 0.24 ERA.
"When you throw it pretty hard, hit your spots and mix up your pitches well, you're going to be successful," Hackney said.
It's been enough, Hackney says, to make him feel very comfortable in games where the offense can struggle.
"You can change your offensive philosophy and play a little small ball because of him," Hackney said. "I feel pretty confident if we have a three-run lead with him, because I know it's usually good."
Hackney and the Indians are certainly not the only ones benefiting from the high production of their top ace.
Down the road in Lone Grove, coach Jake Melton can rely on strikeout artist Justice Ruhnke, who has rung up 58 batters in just 33 innings of pitching, against a mere seven walks, while allowing just two earned runs.
"We've seen flashes of it in the past, but he's gotten better as he's gotten older," Melton said. "This year, he's been so good mentally. He controls his pitches well and even if he loses, he gives us a quality start."
It has been especially helpful for a Lone Grove team that, in Melton's own words, will not blow anybody away offensively. So he needs his pitchers, and Ruhnke, to avoid prolonged innings and issuing free passes, which his staff has done well.
"They know that there's not much you can control as a pitcher except throwing strikes," Melton said. "(Ruhnke) has done a good job of that."
Up north in Davis, the Wolves have jumped out to an impressive 13-3 start thanks to a potent offensive attack.
But that doesn't diminish the contributions of senior Alec Hetherington, who has been a consistent presence for the Wolves on the mound against the toughest of foes.
Hetherington has a 4-2 record, but the numbers of a pitcher that could easily be unbeaten. Through 33 innings of work, the senior has allowed just 20 hits and six earned runs (1.27 ERA), including a no-hitter against Comanche earlier in the year.
"Alec's record is not going to be as good this year as it has in the past, because he's drawing tougher competition," Davis coach Micah Noland said. "But he's been good for us, very good, for a long time."
And in Madill, where the Wildcats have made noise as a contender in 4A, coach Randy Rushing relies on the contributions, both on and off the field, of senior Gage Goff.
"He's the team leader and does everything asked of him," Rushing said. "He's a fierce competitor on the mound and he wants the ball all the time."
Goff has been called on, both as a starter and a reliever, to pitch on the biggest stages this season. In a crucial early game against Plainview, with Madill leading 3-1, the Indians loaded the bases in the seventh inning, Goff's second in relief.
The senior barely batted an eye, recording three straight strikeouts to preserve the Wildcats' win.
"He accepts the challenge every time he steps out there and has high goals set for himself," Rushing said. "We set high goals for him this year, and he's done nothing to disappoint them."
And in a year with so many pitchers putting together top-notch efforts, it doesn't appear anybody in the LCC can worry about disappointment.
"I think that when you take those teams and they have their No. 1 guy out there, they expect to win," Noland said. "They're going to be tough on that day."
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