One cannot blame the Morristown defense if it gets a little bored when Grant Kessler takes the mound.
The junior pitcher has been dominant in three outings this season, striking out 62% of the opposing batters that step to the plate.
On April 7, Kessler was downright nasty at North Decatur. The left-hander struck out a program-record 20 batters in a seven-inning 2-1 Mid-Hoosier Conference (MHC) win which established himself as the certifiable ace of the Yellow Jackets’ pitching staff.
“I am really hoping to have a lot of strong games and help the team,” said Kessler Friday afternoon.
With its 9-1 win Saturday at Indianapolis Lutheran, Morristown is 3-2 this season with Traders Point Christian coming to Morristown today and back-to-back MHC contests with Southwestern later this week.
In three appearances this season, Kessler has notched 36 strikeouts. He had three in a one-inning relief stint against Tri in a season-opening 6-1 win. He followed that with the 20-strikeout performance at North Decatur and added 13 more Saturday in the win against the Saints.
“The first inning came around and I was feeling really good, hitting the outside corner well with my fastball and the curveball was working pretty well,” said Kessler of his record-setting performance at North Decatur. “Toward the end of the first inning I got into a little trouble but worked out of it and kept strong the rest of the game.”
The Yellow Jackets pushed a run across the plate in the top half of the second inning to give Kessler a lead. A run was added in the top of the sixth to make it 2-0 but Kessler knew the game was on the line in the bottom half of the inning.
“I had to keep it in gear the whole time,” said Kessler. “I knew coming into the sixth inning (North Decatur) had the top of the lineup coming up so I had to really focus in there. If I got through that part of the lineup I would be set for the seventh inning.”
The Chargers did nick Kessler for one earned run in that sixth inning – the only earned run he has allowed this season.
Morristown got the offense in gear early Saturday, plating four runs in the second inning and five more in the third to take pressure off Kessler on the mound. He allowed one hit and three walks while striking out 13 in his second complete game performance of the season.
For Morristown head coach Brandon Kessler, Grant’s father, there is a different feeling within his squad whenever the lefty takes the mound.
“I think you see that with every team whether its big league or little league,” he said. “With an ace, there is a calming in the infield and outfield that you don’t see with the other guys. We consistently work through that in the winter time trying not to have such a big swing with that supporting cast. I think we make a lot of headway but I don’t know if you can completely take that away all together.”
If the Yellow Jackets can put runs on the scoreboard in bunches, it will save Kessler innings on the mound and lower his pitch count which allows them to use him more. At the same time, to be competitive at the county tournament and, eventually, the sectional, the rest of the pitching staff has to develop.
“The bats are coming along really nice,” said coach Kessler. “The top part of the lineup is doing their job like you would expect. The last two games, the back side of the lineup is starting to pull some weight and really adding to (our production). If we can get both of those going at the same time, that’s when it gets dangerous.”
Morristown finished 9-15 in 2021 and Kessler racked up 102 strikeouts over 48.1 innings pitched. That success carried over into summer travel baseball with the Indiana Sliders program. Kessler, who coaches in the Sliders organization, put pressure on his son to focus on the right path if he was serious about playing collegiately and beyond.
“The biggest thing is coming out of his sophomore year, I really challenged him and let him know if he is in fact serious about (pitching in college), he has got to take the responsibility for his training, all the responsibility from A-to-Z,” said Brandon. “And I challenged him at the end of the Sliders (season) last year. We found what we felt like is the best fit at PRP (Baseball). He took charge of his (training) schedule. I stepped away to see what he would do on his own. It made me realize he is definitely serious about this.”
Playing professionally is a dream, according to Grant, but, for now, he is focused on finding the right college fit.
“I definitely want to go to college and see where that takes me,” he said. “It would be really cool to go professional with it but right now I am just trying to figure out what I want to do in college and get my way there.”
Kessler will take the mound again later this week against Southwestern in the two-game MHC series. There is no goal to strike out every batter he faces, although it happens a lot. Fellow Morristown pitcher and shortstop Bryce Bryant lets Kessler know how bored he gets in the field.
“My cousin (Bryce Bryant) plays shortstop and I hang out with him a lot,” said Kessler. “He was messing with me about not getting any action and just standing there the whole time.”
The greater goal, explains Kessler, is to focus on maintaining an even keel from start to start.
“It’s not too bad,” said Kessler of all the admiration around school and rising expectations for each trip to the mound. “That day after that (North Decatur game) there was a lot said around school and a lot of congratulating but I kind of try to wipe it from my mind and worry about the next game … try to do the same thing but keep my mind right so I am not trying to beat that (record) again. I am just worried about keeping runs off the scoreboard and helping the defense make plays and win some ballgames.”