Memory of his final game drives SJ-O pitcher Hunter Hart
ST. JOSEPH — The calendars are lined up in order on the side of the Hart family refrigerator.
Summer baseball. Summer basketball. Football weights.
Hunter Hart gathers them all, organizes the white sheets of paper with black boxes indicating each date in June, and sits down at the kitchen table.
It’s the offseason for The News-Gazette’s 2013 Baseball Player of the Year.
If you want to call it that.
“What free time?” he asks rhetorically with a slight grin spread across his clean-shaven face when asked what he likes to do away from baseball.
A little more than a week has passed since Hart and the St. Joseph-Ogden baseball team’s season ended in a Class 2A super-sectional loss to Pleasant Plains.
It’s the farthest the Spartans had ever advanced in program history.
Pleasant Plains went on to place second in state.
Hart was the team’s best pitcher. Best hitter, too.
But what transpired on the turf at Illinois Field on a muggy Memorial Day before the rains came still burns the senior-to-be.
It will motivate him.
This summer when he juggles the three sports he plans on playing next year at SJ-O.
This fall when he takes the field for the Spartans football team.
This winter when he expects to make a contribution to the Spartans’ boys’ basketball team he didn’t play for last winter to focus on baseball.
And next spring when he puts on the maroon and columbia blue SJ-O jersey one final time.
“I just didn’t have my stuff,” Hart said of the less-than-pleasant experience of not making it out of the second inning against Pleasant Plains in an eventual 10-2 loss. “I’m self-motivated, but that definitely plays a part, too, getting hit like that in front of your whole town. It doesn’t make me mad or anything, but it’s still there. I still think about it when I wake up every morning.”
For most of April, no one could hit Hart. The right-hander relied on a two-seam fastball in the low 90s along with a slider and an ever-evolving changeup.
He posted an 11-2 record with a sparkling 1.16 earned run average in a team-high 661/3 innings. Struck out an area-best 136. Only walked 38. Only gave up 21 hits. All season.
He did not allow a hit for 211/3 straight innings during a stretch that covered five April starts. He threw two no-hitters by himself in the span and combined on another one.
“You don’t see the numbers he put up at the high school level,” SJ-O coach Josh Haley said. “You just don’t expect to at least. We told him that as he gave up a hit or two later on in the season. As a coach, you want to put him in that position and you hope he’s successful. That’s why it was so special. It just doesn’t come around often.”
The sight of Hart not allowing any hits became common for his SJ-O teammates.
It’s why instead of staying far away from Hart and not mentioning he was on the verge of another no-hitter, they would come up to him and casually say, ‘Hey, you got another no-hitter going.’ ”
The mystique of Hart’s no-hit streak reached all corners of the area baseball scene.
The Spartans played at Watseka on April 29, three days after Hart’s streak ended when he gave up a bloop single against Effingham St. Anthony on April 26 (“I don’t think it should have happened. It was their No. 9 hitter,” Hart said with a bit of an edge while he reflected on the no-hit streak).
Tyler McCormick was on the mound for SJ-O. Not Hart.
McCormick gave up a first-inning home run. The Watseka bench was ecstatic. For more reasons than just scoring a run.
“I’m sitting there at shortstop, and their dugout goes, ‘There goes the no-hitter, Hart!’ ” he said. “They thought it was me on the mound. I didn’t really have a reaction. I was kind of confused at the time. I didn’t take it as an insult. I thought it was funny.”
The season opener gave an indication Hart might have a special season.
SJ-O beat Westville 3-0 on March 22. Hart pitched 42/3 innings.
All 14 of his outs came via strikeouts.
His changeup is the pitch Haley would like to see improve.
“That’s the pitch he needs to take to the next level,” Haley said.
Mixing it with his slider and overpowering fastball is what could make Hart a Division I pitcher.
“We knew he had a lot of potential and upside with his body and his arm,” Haley said of Hart, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 175 pounds. “Last year he just started to scratch the surface. He went from a live guy on the mound to someone who could throw hard to someone who could just dominate. We knew he had the potential coming in, and we just wanted to make sure his arm was in shape and his legs were in shape.”
They were. After a winter spent in the weight room.
Hart lifted four, sometimes five times a week. On top of the weights, he conditioned himself with advanced plyometric workouts to build his core and legs.
“We’d go out and throw on the football field in 20-degree weather every now and then,” Hart said with a laugh. “That was fun.”
But worth it. Especially since he didn’t pitch his sophomore year after experiencing tingling in two fingers on his right hand because of a strained elbow. He served as the Spartans’ designated hitter the majority of the year.
Whenever he didn’t pitch during his junior season, Hart played in the infield for SJ-O, shifting between third base, shortstop and second base. It wasn’t just his arm, either, that put up eye-popping numbers. His bat supplied plenty of pop, too.
“His offense is overshadowed completely,” Haley said after Hart hit a team-best .464 to go with five home runs and 38 RBI while adding 14 stolen bases. “The numbers he put up offensively were spectacular. He put up one of the best offensive numbers that have come through St. Joe in a number of years. His bat stays in the zone so long that he never gets in a slump.”
Hart has college baseball programs paying attention to him. He recently visited Eastern Illinois with plans to visit Southern Illinois-Carbondale this summer. He’s received interest from Illinois, Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Parkland, Kaskaskia College and John A. Logan College.
“I’ve got a lot of time, which is good because I don’t know,” Hart said. “I say I want to go to Illinois, but that could change. I’ll probably come to a decision before my senior year of baseball.”
Hart and his family moved to St. Joseph prior to his eighth-grade year. He was born in Danville and spent his childhood in Georgetown before the family relocated.
And for an accomplished baseball player like Hart, he almost didn’t take up the sport. His mom, Tracey, had to coax him into playing when he was 5 years old. It was an offer he didn’t refuse. For good reason.
“She had to pay me 100 bucks to play T-ball,” Hart said with a laugh. “I just didn’t want to do any sports. The first year I didn’t like it too much, but by the third year of T-ball I was starting to get the hang of it.”
Having his dad, Scott, catch him at an early age further developed his game, especially when he started playing travel baseball with the Vermilion County Patriots.
Yet the days of dad acting as his personal catcher didn’t last long.
“We got to the age where we couldn’t do that anymore because I’d hit out the windows so many times behind the garage,” Hunter Hart said. “There were probably four that I knocked out by the time I was 8.”
Hart has harnessed the control since then. Used it effectively to stifle opposing hitters while dealing out punishment to area pitchers who throw to him.
Although he is human. He went 0 for 6 in a 12-inning win against St. Thomas More on May 6. The lucky green socks he had worn for much of April weren’t in his attire the next game.
He still has the game balls from his no-hit run this spring along with a stack of trophies and awards from throughout his athletic career in his room. Even if his future lies in baseball, Hart is eager to play football for Dick Duval and basketball for Brian Brooks before Haley utilizes him on the diamond.
“When I’m a senior, I just want to play all the sports I can play,” Hart said. “I’m a competitor.”
It’s a move Haley encourages.
“It’s to his benefit to stay competitive all year,” he said. “Those little moments where you fight through something, it can help you out. There’s always a coach on top of you, and that also helps. There’s the same expectations from all three of us.”
Hart already has expectations for his final baseball season at SJ-O. Great expectations. Ones far beyond what Hart and the Spartans accomplished this spring.
“As a team, we want a 30-win season and we want to win state,” Hart said. “For me, I want to be undefeated pitching. It’s not too much to ask for, huh?”