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Zopf: Big Red running toward a title
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Bats get silenced, pitchers struggle with their command, but speed never slumps.

Bolstering a major league lineup with speedsters might not be a formula for a World Series title, but at the high school level, speed can lead you to a region title and possibly more.

Case in point: the No. 2-ranked Gainesville Red Elephants, who have already set a new school single-season record for most stolen bases with 86 and still have five more games remaining in the regular season.

The Red Elephants’ propensity for stealing bases has helped them win 16 straight games, and on Friday against West Forsyth, the ability to run was the main reason they kept that streak alive.

“It’s something we work on as soon as we get the kids,” Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said. “We work them out individually and find the best technique for each player.”

Probably no one player is benefitting from that more than senior K.J. McAllister, who stole six bases in one game earlier this year, and broke Randi Mallard’s single-season record of 25 stolen bases with three steals against the Wolverines on Friday.

But McAllister isn’t the only one running for Gainesville.

With the possible exception of cleanup hitter Sloan Strickland, every player on Gainesville’s roster is capable of stealing second once he reaches first. While there were few opportunities Friday, every Gainesville player that reached first with second base open, attempted to steal.

Some were forced back to the base by a foul ball, others were forced back because of an out, but only one was actually caught stealing.

“You’re gonna get thrown out,” Kemp said. “That’s just part of the game.”

It doesn’t happen often in Gainesville’s case.

The Red Elephants have only been thrown out 11 times out of 97 attempts, which translates to an out-of-this-world 89-percent success rate. To put that into perspective, the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies led the major leagues last year with an 80-percent success rate.

The benefits of stealing bases at that high of a rate are endless.

Long baseball seasons often lead to times when an offense, no matter how potent, can get into a slump. Stealing bases can overcome silent bats.

When a game is close and a runner is on base, just the thought that he may steal can get into a pitcher’s head and disrupt the flow of the game. Trust me, I watched it happen during the 2004 ALCS when everyone in the world knew Boston’s Dave Roberts was going to steal second and he still did, which set up the series-turning comeback of the Red Sox.

“It plays with the pitcher’s mind,” Kemp said. “Stealing bases has a lot of advantages.”

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who stole 689 bases in his career, felt the same way when he said, “a good base stealer should make the whole infield jumpy.”

Messing with the opposing infield and pitcher may be the most obvious advantage of stealing bases, but Kemp likes the run-at-all-costs strategy for another reason.

“It means you don’t have to waste an out on sacrificing,” he said. “We need all the outs we can get.”

One thing’s for sure, those outs won’t be coming on stolen bases.

Jonathan Zopf is a sportswriter for The Times. Contact him at
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