If you can't beat him, have him join your team.
That's the motto for first-year Peninsula Oilers head coach Dennis Machado. When putting together this year's team, Machado made sure to call Central Michigan University to see what pitcher Jake Sabol had planned for the summer. Sabol shut down the high-powered offense of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Machado's former team, in last year's National Baseball Congress World Series title game. Coming into the championship, the Pilots were batting .325 as a team and scored 79 runs in eight games.
As a member of the El Dorado (Kan.) Broncos, Sabol yielded just one run in seven innings, keying a 2-1 win. Allowing only one earned run in 17 2-3 innings, Sabol was named the most valuable player of the NBC tournament.
He has picked up this summer right where he left off. In three starts for the Oilers, Sabol (2-0) has given up just five hits and one run in 19 innings.
Much of that success stems from getting ahead of hitters in the pitch count.
"He's just relentless at attacking the strike zone," Machado said during Friday's optional batting practice. "Whenever you do that, you're gonna have success."
"I go right at guys," Sabol said. "I really don't walk guys."
Out of 65 batters faced, Sabol has walked only four while recording 11 strikeouts. Sabol typically retires batters via ground-outs. "He's a ground ball type guy," Machado said.
"You're gonna be successful when you get a lot of ground balls, and that's what he does," said Oilers outfielder Ryan Gebhart.
As a member of the Pilots during the 2009 NBC tourney, Gebhart knows firsthand what it's like stepping into the batters box with the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Sabol staring in from 60 feet, 6 inches, away.
"He's always pumping strikes," Gebhart said. "He's got a lot of sink on the ball."
Consistently getting ahead of batters keeps them guessing each at-bat, Sabol said.
"They have no idea what's coming," he said. "They can't sit on a pitch. I can throw whatever I want and make them hit my pitch."
Throwing first-pitch strikes is Sabol's No. 1 attribute, Gebhart said. As a hitter, falling behind in the count puts the pitcher in command of the at-bat, he said.
"You got to swing the bat," Gebhart said. "You have to expand your strike zone. You don't want to go down on a strikeout."
Getting ahead of batters also allows for variety.
"When a pitcher gets ahead, he has a lot of options," Machado said.
"He can throw whatever he wants," Gebhart said. "He's got four pitches to throw."
Varying his pitches has led to success in the Alaska Baseball League, Sabol said.
"I'm just mixing up my pitches well," he said. "Just forcing contact early and getting ahead in the count. That allows me to stay in the game longer."
As a ground-ball pitcher, having a solid defense behind him has also factored into his success, Sabol said.
In his three starts, Sabol has pitched six full innings twice and gone a complete seven innings once. That's quite an accomplishment, as starters typically have a smaller pitch count in the ABL than they do during their collegiate season.
"If he was in school, he'd probably have three complete games already," Machado said.
Another feature of Sabol's game is his pinpoint accuracy.
"He locates extremely well," Machado said.
That makes catcher Davis Page's job easy.
"I know exactly where the pitch is gonna go," Page said. "My glove doesn't move."
Page, who's backstopped each of Sabol's ABL starts, said Sabol always knows what pitch he wants to throw. The late movement on Sabol's fastball forces ground ball after ground ball, making him difficult to hit, Page said.
Sabol said he throws his late-action, two-seam fastball down in the strike zone, which forces so many ground balls.
"Ninety percent of my fastballs are two-seamers," he said. Sabol said he only uses the four-seam fastball when he's trying to get batters to chase a ball out of the strike zone.
"He's really good about getting ahead in counts," Page said. "Especially with wood bats, you got to attack the zone."
Despite a bevy of solid hitters in the ABL, Sabol said he's not afraid to make mistakes. He throws over the plate and forces batters to put the ball in play.
"I just tell myself, 'Hey, this is what I've got to do,' and just focus on one pitch at a time," Sabol said. He carries that one-pitch-at-a-time-one-batter-at-a-time mentality throughout the game.
"It's a one-on-one battle," Sabol said. "You just got to focus on winning that battle."
As former enemies turned teammates, the NBC title game is rarely talked about amongst Gebhart, Sabol and Machado. Gebhart said he doesn't remember many specifics about the game except for Sabol's stinginess.
"He didn't give us bases," Gebhart said.
Sabol said Machado isn't bitter about the loss and he was excited to have the opportunity to play in the ABL.
"That shows a lot of character of him," Sabol said of Machado. "I'm just trying to help him get back there and win it this year."
Machado returned Sabol's compliments.
"He works quick, he pounds the strike zone and he's a very smart player," Machado said. "As a coach, it's phenomenal to watch him work. Any guy would want him at the top of his rotation."
Making fast work of opposing teams is all part of Sabol's game plan.
"I like to get in somewhat of a rhythm," he said.
Fast innings benefit the team, Sabol said. That fact is not lost on Gebhart.
"As a position player, that's your dream," he said.
Sabol's game needs little tweaking, Machado said. He only works with Sabol on various in-game situations, which, like the rest of his game, doesn't require much work.
"He's already a guy that has a very good grasp of that kind of stuff," Machado said.
After completing his upcoming senior season at college, Sabol hopes to have an opportunity to pitch at the professional level.
"I've had pretty good success with the wood bat, and hopefully some scouts will take an interest in me," he said.
Machado said the transition to the next level should be no problem for Sabol.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he can pitch at the professional level," he said.
Though it may take several words, even sentences, to aptly describe a pitcher like Jake Sabol, Page summed him up in just three words:
"He's just unreal."
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