After three smooth practice swings, Rock Bridge’s Johnny Kruse rests his bat several inches above his right shoulder.
He adjusts and readjusts his right hand on the barrel as he takes a curveball for strike one. Kruse never flinches. It’s not his pitch.
Two pitches later Kruse is still looking for his pitch. His eyes are attentive to the pitcher’s every move. As the ball leaves the southpaw’s hand, Kruse knows it’s not the pitch he had been waiting for. It doesn’t matter. He connects on the 2-2 curveball, driving it to the left-centerfield wall for a stand-up double.
“I like the fastball,” Kruse said. “I’m a fastball hitter, but I mean with the curveball, at this level, you’ve got to be able to adjust to it, and change-up, same thing. I just look for a good pitch and swing at it and hopefully get all of it.”
This leadoff double in the first inning Tuesday against Marshall shows Kruse’s steady offensive contribution for the Bruins (11-3), who score more than 10 runs per game. He gets on base and his teammates take care of the rest.
Kruse, a senior shortstop, is batting close to .500 and leads the team in hits and runs scored.
“He’s been very consistent up top,” Rock Bridge coach Terry Whitney said. “He’s doing a good job of being a leadoff hitter, and not only that he’s driving in a few runs up there, hitting home runs and stealing bases when we need them.”
Rock Bridge and Hickman (8-6) begin play in the eight-team Sells Development/Red Weir Classic today.
The Bruins play St. Dominic at 4:30 p.m. at Rock Bridge Stadium. The Kewpies face Owensville at 4:30 p.m. at Hickman Field.
Playing opposite of Rock Bridge, Hickman is aiming to avenge an earlier loss with a rematch in the championship game. The Bruins defeated the Kewpies 7-6 on April 15 when Kruse hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth.
“I was glad he did that because I got the win for that game,” Rock Bridge’s Ryan Concannon said. “The inning before we kind of got in a jam where I got doubled off on that line drive and so I told him hit a home run because I didn’t want to get out again and he listened. It was a big time to have a home run.”
Teammate Chase Patton didn’t expect anything less. It was typical Kruse. A big hit in a big game, something Patton has seen frequently since they started playing summer baseball together at age 8.
“He was always hitting the ball hard everywhere and a home run hitter when we were younger,” Patton said. “It’s weird. You see him and it looks like he gets jammed, but his hands are so far inside the ball, and he gets that barrel out there, and he’s strong enough that he can lift it and get it out of here. It’s pretty amazing.
“Every time he needs to step up to the plate and get something in the clutch situation, he does it.”
Kruse’s team-high four home runs are unusual for a leadoff hitter but not for the cleanup spot where he batted the majority of last season.
Whitney opted to move Kruse to leadoff with the departure of Curt Bradley.
“Last year, I put him there because I thought we had people who could get on base in front of him and he was getting pretty consistent about putting the ball into play and driving in runs,” Whitney said. “This year, I thought we had enough people we could put behind him, to kind of switch roles, and let him get on base and let some other guys drive him in.”
The switch hasn’t been much of an adjustment for Kruse, who has batted leadoff most of his career.
“I was a leadoff hitter when I was younger a lot because I’ve always been quick,” Kruse said.
In addition to his speed, Concannon said Kruse has good strength.
This translated well on the football field, where Kruse was a wide receiver. Patton, the Bruins’ quarterback, said if Kruse wasn’t making people miss, he was running through them. He had a state-record 14 receptions Oct. 24.
He was also a free safety, punt returner and tailback.
Although Kruse, 5 feet 10, 195 pounds, hasn’t received many offers for football, he said he would like to play baseball in college as well.
“I thought he’d get a lot more offers in football, but I guess his size had something to do with it,” Concannon said. “He has shown this year that he really wants to play college baseball too, and I think he has the ability to do it.”