Baseball is often called a simple game, and Hammond High School baseball coach Bob Maxey fittingly explained the Golden Bears' newfound excellence with simple facts.
"We're scoring over seven runs a game, we're only allowing about 2.5 earned runs, and we're not making errors," said Maxey. "Something has to give, and it's usually the other team."
The latest victim of Hammond's formula was Centennial. Hammond combined a timely, 12-hit attack, clutch defense and complete-game, six-hit pitching by Joe Nestor to produce a 9-1 victory on Wednesday at Centennial.
The victory, Hammond's ninth straight, added another line to the Bears' most successful season in school history.
The Bears (11-2) entered the game tied for first place with Centennial and wound up the county schedule's first round in sole possession of the league lead with a 7-0 record.
Hammond also broke the six-game winning streak of the Eagles (5-1, 8-4) by dealing Centennial starter Brian Bickerton his first loss in five decisions.
With seven regular-season games left and their first regional playoff berth in four years awaiting them, the Bears are enjoying a spring of redemption, a season in which they've buried memories of past mediocrity and have begun to taste their first county title.
Wednesday's win killed one more ghost and raised the Bears' growing confidence another notch.
"We're tired of losing. We want to win and we want to prove we're a contending club," said senior shortstop Jeff Cyran, a third-year varsity player who proved his point Wednesday by leading Hammond's offense.
Cyran went 3-for-5, scored two runs and had a team-high four RBIas the Bears put at least one runner on base in every inning. His first-inning single brought home the game's first run. His two-run single in the sixth inning was the game's biggest hit, as it gave Nestor a 5-1 cushion.
The Bears added four runs in the seventh against relief pitcher Jason Weinstein to complete the rout.
Cyran also turned one of the more decisive defensive plays of the afternoon in the third inning. He made a perfect relay throw to catcher Marc Salerno tonail Bickerton, who tried to score from first base on catcher Jon Loden's two-out, RBI single.
That ended Centennial's first rally with Hammond's 2-1 lead intact.
But Cyran merely headed a list of Hammond heroes. Third baseman Mike Alvarez went 2-for-5, scored two runsand made the defensive play that killed the Eagles for good. With one out in the fifth inning and runners on first and second, Centennialleadoff hitter Sam Yurko hit a grounder down the third-base line. Alvarez stepped on third and threw a strike to first baseman Jeff Lavisto complete an inning-ending double play.
Lavis also chipped in a2-for-4, two-RBI game. Center fielder Matt Cyran, Jeff's younger brother, scored two runs and drove in two.
Even Nestor, a curveball-happy southpaw who kept Centennial off balance en route to a no-walk, six-strikeout performance, did some damage at the plate. His two-out single in the first inning gave the Bears their 2-0 lead.
Hammond's midseason report card, while encouraging, doesn't reveal an overwhelming success. Against the county, the Bears have won two games by one run, and struggled to an 8-6 victory over Glenelg last week.
Butthe Bears also put together a pair of 10-run games before Wednesday's nine-run outburst. Their offensive muscle grabbed the attention of Centennial coach Ron Martin.
"They hit the ball with more authority than anyone we've faced in the county. They're No. 1 right now and they deserve to be," said Martin, who watched Bickerton keep the Eagles in the game for six innings with a gutty, 137-pitch effort. "Anybody in the county has got their work cut out to beat them."
The Bears are hitting .345, and have been led by the same senior foursome that starred Wednesday.
Alvarez has been so hot in the leadoff spot that his average dropped to .485 after the Centennial game. He leads the team with 18 runs and 21 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
Lavis (.438, team-high 19 RBI) carried the Bears early with 15 RBI in his first five games. Jeff Cyran (.390, 2 HRs, 15 runs, 10 RBI, 10 steals) and Nestor (.393, seven runs, seven RBI) have supplied more punch. Sophomore Matt Cyran (11 steals) adds to team speed that has produced 53steals in 56 attempts.
Defensively, Hammond has been no less superb, having made just 17 errors in 12 games. The middle infield of Cyran and second baseman Tom Costell has committed one miscue (Cyran's).
And Nestor and right-hander Mike Lerner have turned into an excellent one-two combination on the mound. Nestor is 5-1 with 50 strikeouts in 47 innings and has an 0.75 ERA during the Bears' nine-game winning streak. Lerner (5-0, 2.84) has been just as effective. They've each pitched five complete games.
"We're probably going to lose one,because anybody in this league is capable of beating you this year,"Maxey said. "The kids are real enthusiastic. We've put up with mediocrity long enough. With seven games left, I just want to keep it rolling."