(This article originally appeared in the October 2, 2011 edition of Collegiate Baseball. The streak continued into the 2012 season. Martendsdale-St. Marys (IA) ended with 88 straight wins while Portsmouth (NH) ended its streak with 89 straight victories.)
By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
© 2011 Collegiate Baseball
MARTENSDALE, Iowa. — No baseball team in the history of high school baseball has won as many consecutive baseball games as Martensdale-St. Marys High School (Martensdale, Iowa).
At 87 straight wins and counting, the Blue Devils have been a model of consistency since Head Coach Justin Dehmer arrived four seasons ago.
The Blue Devils posted a 43-0 record in 2010 and a 44-0 mark in 2011.
Only a handful of times was the streak in jeopardy.
“In the state tournament last summer, we were down 1-0 and wound up winning on a walk-off hit in the bottom of the seventh and won, 2-1,” said Dehmer.
“In the next round, we were down three going into the last inning and scored five runs as we went on to win, 5-4.”
Dehmer recalled another game during the 2011 season where the Blue Devils were down three runs late in a game and rallied to win.
“There were definitely some times we were down three runs or one run here and there. But we also had our share of blowout wins.”
During the 87 straight wins, the Blue Devils have scored 904 runs (averaging 10.4 per game), hit 225 doubles and belted 105 home runs while stealing 251 bases. In addition, the pitching staff recorded 754 strikeouts and only allowed 133 runs.
Dehmer played his high school baseball at Shadow Mountain H.S. (Phoenix, Ariz.). Then he played two years at Central Arizona J.C. for legendary Head Coach Clint Myers.
After that, he went to Kansas State and finished his college playing career at Grand Canyon.
“I knew all along I wanted to get into teaching and coaching,” said Dehmer.
“Once my playing career was over, my wife and I made a decision to move to Iowa because that’s where my wife’s family is from.
“I started coaching immediately that first summer in Iowa. I was a JV/varsity assistant for a couple of years at a small school called Earlham H.S. (Earlham, Iowa).
“We played a great baseball program named Martensdale-St. Marys and never really did well against them. They had been a powerhouse for a long time with an Iowa Hall of Fame coach and great tradition with many appearances in the state tournament.
“I ended up being the head coach at Earlham for two more years. Then I took a job as an algebra and algebra II teacher at Southeast Polk H.S. outside of Des Moines, Iowa and didnâ€™t have a coaching job at the time since I resigned at Earlham.
“At about that time, the head coaching position opened up at Martensdale-St. Marys. I live about 10 minutes away from this school and knew this is where I wanted to coach. I applied for the job and was ultimately chosen as the new head coach.”
When Dehmer started as the head coach four years ago, he had an extremely young ball club. Since the high school baseball season is during the summer, graduated eighth graders who are ready to be freshmen can play high school baseball. Technically, they can play varsity baseball on the high school level for five seasons.
“We were starting three graduated eighth graders my first summer at Martensdale-St. Marys. To be competitive with really young players is tough to do. There was a lot of learning and growing up that took place. We ended up going 19-12 that first season.
“The year before I took over, the team was 8-23. It was one of the worst years that our school had ever experienced as far as baseball. We had to start somewhere, and we had a good group of young kids. We looked to them to build on and grow with experience.
“My first two years with the program, we only had three seniors in the whole program. So we were extremely young. Those young guys got a lot of opportunities to play.
“In the process, we learned how to win and be competitive. Eventually we started knocking off teams that had been beating us.”
Dehmer said that the summer of 2009 is when the team started coming together.
“We were 25-11 the second year I was there. I felt we had an extremely solid team that could compete on the state level. We got knocked off in the district finals and didn’t get a chance to play in the state finals. After we lost that game, we were extremely disappointed. Many of the players felt we could have and should have won that district final game. But we didn’t get it done. We committed a few errors in the first inning, and before we knew it, we were behind 6 or 7-0. We chipped away at their lead but could never come back all the way.
“And we haven’t lost since with 87 straight wins. But it all comes back to that loss we had that fueled our guys to step it up a notch and work even harder.”
The Streak Begins
After that traumatic loss, every player in the program dedicated themselves to being the best ball players they could be. They worked tirelessly on every phase of the game.
“Before the start of the 2010 season, we had a key transfer come into our program by the name of Ethan Westphal. His father was an athletics director at a school in our conference. Administrators were going to cut his position after being the head coach there for over 30 years.
“So he decided that if they wanted to do that, his family was going to move elsewhere. He knew we had a great team coming back, good chemistry and knew what we were all about. The last two years, Ethan has been our No. 1 starting pitcher as a righthander. Unfortunately, he graduated. But was a big part of why we were 87-0 the last two seasons.
“In the two years he was with us, he was undefeated as a starter (30-0). And his dad was one of my assistants as a volunteer. Having those two guys around was important.
“These two were involved in the state championship game in 2009. They both had tremendous experience at the state playoff level. Ethan’s only loss all season long that year was in the state title game. We also had a bunch of other guys who were very talented and knew what was possible if they were consistent on a game-by-game basis.
“Having the right people and right attitude allowed us to put together this win streak. It was never about winning 87 games in a row. It was trying to be as good as we could be night in and night out and not worrying about the other team. We were simply focusing on what we could control and play good baseball pitch-by-pitch.
“Our entire team became 1-Pitch Warriors. This is when you have the ability to play the game one pitch at a time. We were focused pitch-by-pitch and didn’t let our attention stray to the past or future which is very difficult to do. Dehmer was able to train his players to focus in this fashion by utilizing the techniques of sports psychologist Brian Cain.
“One of the most important things we do as a coaching staff is put pressure on our guys in everything they do.
“Anybody can go down to the batting cage and throw 10 fastballs and let guys whale away. We are more process oriented in doing the things that will allow us to be competitive night in and night out. Being focused on the process is vital for our teams.
“Having quality at bats is more important to us than what our batting average is. We aren’t as interested in the number of hits a player has. We aren’t about that.
“But we do keep track of things like quality at bats where you work the pitcher and let him throw six or seven pitches. That’s a quality at bat for us. Even if a batter grounds out to the second baseman, a hitter will get a quality at bat for that. We also track if hitters move runners.
“On the defensive side with pitching, we are focused on one thing — throwing strikes. We aren’t worried about strikeouts or even getting outs. We are worried about getting the ball in the strike zone and keep track of that process. We want to know how many strikes our pitchers throw and how many first pitch strikes.
“Our pitchers have done a great job of throwing strikes. So our players are concerned with just these few things only and nothing else. There are so many things a pitcher can focus on in a game. He may become rattled if the shortstop makes an error. And now he isn’t focused on throwing strikes in the present moment. And really, that is the only thing he can do which is throw strikes. That’s it. That’s his job. The only other thing is fielding for the pitcher or backing up a base. But most of the time, the ball will not be hit to the pitcher.
“That is how we approach the game from a mental standpoint. As part of being a ’1 Pitch Warrior,’ our players must have a set routine. If you are a pitcher, we want them to have a pre-pitch ritual. And the same goes for hitters between each pitch or defensive players.
“Players must have something to fall back on when they make an error, bad pitch or a bad swing. Getting re-focused quickly so you are able to get back to your task on the next pitch is essential.”
Dehmer said that outside of quality at-bats, a key philosophy his teams utilize is called BASE2.
“The B stands for us having big innings (3 runs or more). The A signifies us answering when the other team scores. The S stands for us scoring first. The E means extending a lead. And finally, the 2 is scoring with two outs.
“I got that from an article that Brian Cain published in Collegiate Baseball which I thought was superb. We have used that the last four years. We found that if our teams have won three of the five elements in BASE2 during games, then we have been nearly unbeatable.”
Over the last three seasons, his varsity and JV teams at Martensdale-St. Marys have posted a combined 159-2 record when winning three or more of these criteria in games.
“It works for us, and our guys believe it. If the other team scores, our guys will come back to the dugout and start yelling, ‘Let’s answer back!’ They know how important that is. BASE2 is an important part of our offensive philosophy.”
Dehmer said that not giving up the big inning defensively has been huge for his teams as well.
In the two seasons where the Blue Devils have gone 87-0, his teams have only allowed seven big innings (3 runs or more) by opponents out of 512.
“That’s a pretty staggering statistic to me.
“It helps that our pitchers throw a lot of strikes. Our strikeout to walk ratio has been extremely good.”
The 2011 pitching staff had a 1.49 ERA in 44 games and fanned 376 batters with only 74 walks — a better than 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
The 2010 staff recorded a 1.43 ERA in 43 games and fanned 378 batters with 90 walks — a better than 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
If you look at how many walks his hitters have drawn because of the quality at bats concept as batters routinely go deep into counts, it is incredible.
During the 2011 season, Blue Devil batters walked 210 times in 44 games. In 2010, his hitters walked 222 times in 43 games. Therefore, in 87 games over two years, his batters walked a total of 432 times — an average of nearly five walks for every seven inning game they play.
When his players get on base, they run like crazy.
The Blue Devils swiped 149 bases during the 2010 season and 102 more in 2011 for a total of 251 over two seasons.
Having quality at-bats means better pitches to hit. In 2010, his team hit .398 with 54 homers, 109 doubles and 445 runs scored. During the past season, his team hit .413 with 51 homers, 116 doubles and scored 459 runs.
By his teams staying with the process, the Blue Devils’ offensive production has soared.
“Our philosophy of having quality at-bats has been important in our system. A quality at-bat for us is getting on base with a hit, a walk or hit by pitch.
“Even if you have a six pitch at-bat where you ground out to an infielder, that is a quality at-bat. If one of our guys has a 9-pitch at-bat and strikes out, it is a quality at-bat. If we have three hitters go deep into the count, the opposing pitcher has now close to 20 pitches in an inning. If we keep that up, it means he will be forced to throw 100 pitches or so in five innings, and he won’t last as a starter.
“The one thing we show our pitchers is strike percentage. And the one stat we show our hitters is the quality at-bat percentage through the season. Those are the only two statistics that really matter to me. I don’t care how many hits my players have or what their batting averages are. I don’t even look at that. I honestly don’t. Being process oriented with strike percentage by pitchers and quality at-bats by hitters is vital to our approach.
Dehmer said much of what he does as a coach can be traced back to his playing days at Central Arizona J.C. when he played for Coach Clint Myers.
“I would say our practices are set up 75-80 percent of the way Coach Myers ran his practices at Central Arizona when he was the head coach there.
“He taught me how you set up practices, how you make them rigorous and how you make them pressure packed where guys have to perform. I have tweaked some of the things he did with the philosophies we have adopted. He was always demanding and expected excellence out of us every day. That shows up on the field when it matters most. I learned from him how to manage the game and be calm about it and also be a leader and a person players can trust and go to with anything baseball related or outside of the game.”
Dehmer was asked to explain how a typical practice is run from start to finish.
“We normally will start our practices off with what we call a Mental Minute or a skull session where we are talking about some sort of mental aspect to the game. We might talk about routines that a hitter, pitcher or fielder might have. Or we might talk about what it means to have a positive attitude or to have a good perspective on things.
“Then we stretch, do our base running program and do our position throwing program which is what most other people would do. Then we usually get into individual defense where we try to keep it competitive. Sometimes we will do last man standing where the last guy to not miss a ball will get a Gatorade.
“It’s always some sort of competition where the coaches are striving to make it matter and not just going through the paces and repetitions. The analogy is that anyone can go through the motions. But practice is not aerobics. We want everything we do to be meaningful with quality work and put some sort of pressure on those guys.”
Dehmer said his team then focuses on CRTs which stands for Cuts, Relays and Tags on defense.
“A ball will be hit to the outfield, and then I will yell out the base as our guys react. Then the outfielder must hit the cutoff man as the ball is relayed to the base we are going to, and the tag is made. If we do that, then we are successful. I usually give them one error.
“If we make more than one error, our entire team must run a triangle (run from home to the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole back to home). For each error made after the first one, the entire team must run each triangle within one minute and 30 seconds or under. So if the team has a rough defensive day and commits five errors beyond the one allowed, the team must run five triangles, each under 90 seconds.”
Dehmer said his team hates the word triangle.
“They have to perform under pressure, and it means something. Everybody runs the triangles together even if only one person makes all the errors. We will win and lose together.”
Dehmer said that the triangles are run immediately after that phase of practice is completed.
“We don’t wait until the end of practice. We do it right away which is immediate feedback. Our players know that it really cuts into their hitting time. If we don’t play good defense, we don’t get to hit. It’s also a progression. When we begin practicing prior to the season, we might not be as sharp as we will be later on.
“But they learn very quickly to be focused, and they usually do a very good job. It might be every other day that we have to run one or two triangles. It still reminds them that we have a job to do and how we want it done.
“If even one player doesn’t make the entire triangle in 90 seconds, then everybody does it again. And this keeps up until the entire team runs the triangle in 90 seconds or less.”
Dehmer said he had a couple of players who were late one day. Each had to run three triangles which is the standard punishment for being tardy. He said that being late is the responsibility of each athlete. If someone doesn’t show up on time, he will suffer the consequences — not the entire team.
“Neither of them made it the first three tries. They kept doing it, and it took them 10 times before they got it right. They were upset, and their way of showing me was not to make the one minute 30 second time limit. I told each of them that if they didn’t get these done, then they were not getting on the bus (for a game). They were going to be left behind, and we were going to leave without them.”
Dehmer said his team then works on specialty defenses such as bunt coverages or first and third plays.
“Our outfielders are usually our runners. Our infielders are in there, and our pitchers are on the mound. Sometimes we just have our players go through the coverages to get them experience. Then toward the end, I might require them to make the play perfectly five times in a row or six in a row. If they don’t, then we start over. There is always some mini goal in mind. And again, it cuts into their hitting time. If we don’t get around to hitting, we don’t get around to it.
“Good defense and pitching will keep us in every game. If we do those two things, we will always have an opportunity to win with a clutch hit here or there. Hitting can come and go. You might have everybody coming together and hit one day. On other days, you might only have one or two guys hitting well.”
Dehmer said another thing his team will do from time to time before they hit is called 21.
“Essentially we have all of our JV and varsity guys on the field. They have to make 21 perfect routine defensive plays in a row. If they are on the 20th play and make an error, we go back to zero. It’s pressure packed. The guys have to perform.
“If a guy makes an error, he isn’t usually very happy about it. But we go right back to him. He has to clear his head in a certain way that is a routine that we have. We want him to take a deep breath, get re-focused and come back for the play he is about to make because he just made an error.
“Making a play right away after an error is not easy. You don’t want an error to turn into three or four during a game. This 21 drill has helped all of our players.
“Then we will hit. The rest of practice has something to do with offense.”
Dehmer said that the hitting drills his players utilize are tough and allow the batter to be locked in.
“Our drills are rigorous, and we don’t do just soft toss. We do things that are a lot more difficult which has some focus to it. If you are just jacking around, it won’t be easy to accomplish. You really have to be locked in as a hitter to hit the ball solid and square.
“People will find it interesting that we rarely have live batting practice on the field. Our players usually hit in the cages, and it is always fastball, curveball, fastball curveball. We don’t throw endless fastballs which players can crush. That isn’t game like. Anybody can go in there and hit 10 fastballs.
“Many times we will use humans to throw. But we also use the machine as well. We want them to constantly adjust their swings and stay balanced. It teaches them to make good, solid contact with an array of pitches.
“If we do have live batting practice on the field, it will be a live at-bat situation with runners on base. They will have a count where they must move the runner on first to second or the runner from second to third or third to home with less than two outs.
“We have a competition called the ‘Game Winner’ with a runner on third. There are two outs, and the batter must get a hit and the defense must record the out to end the inning. So you are creating that game like environment for the hitter and defense as well.
“We even took it a step further this past season. We broke our squad into three distinct teams that competed those three weeks where we had situational hitting. We gave a team a point because they were the best team that day based on the quality of their at-bat percentage. Again, it goes back to our philosophy of what we want in games with quality at-bats.
“The kids played for one prize — not carrying gear the entire season. Nobody likes carrying gear off the bus. If your team is the winner after three weeks, then you don’t have to carry gear the entire season. But the other two teams do.”
Dehmer said that during the winter is when most of the work on pitching takes place.
“We really only have three weeks of practice prior to our season starting in the summer. After that, it is pretty much play, play, play every night of the summer.
“In the winter we play special games called Blue Devils. It is kind of like PIG for basketball players. Essentially, the first pitcher to 10 strikes wins. We do this when we have three or four pitchers ready to pitch on an indoor mound because we can’t go outside due to freezing weather or snow.
“The first guy will throw a fastball. If he throws it for a ball, then the next guy will have to throw a fastball. If that pitchers throws a fastball for a strike, then the next pitcher in line will throw a changeup. If he throws a strike with his changeup, the next pitcher will throw a curve. And it is a continual rotation through those three pitches with the pitchers that are there.
“It becomes a game and is very competitive. These pitchers, as in a game, don’t know what their next pitch will be. It keeps that element of surprise in there. We actually record the results. We track how many pitches it takes for each pitcher to get to 10 strikes. Does it take him 20 pitches? That’s too many in my book.
“If you are throwing 10 strikes out of 15 pitches, that’s what we want which is 66 percent. If you can get 60 percent first pitch strikes and 60 percent strikes throughout the course of a game, we feel you can give us an opportunity to win without walking a bunch of guys and allowing our guys in the field to do their job.
“In the beginning, there is only a catcher receiving balls behind a plate. But later on, we add a batter to one side of the plate or the other to make it more realistic.”
Dehmer said he doesn’t focus a great deal on pitching mechanics if the pitcher is throwing strikes.
“If a kid is throwing 60 percent strikes with crazy mechanics, I don’t care. He is getting the job done. For me, can the pitcher throw strikes at the level we want him to? I won’t tamper with his mechanics if he can throw strikes. If the kid is throwing 50 percent strikes or below, then we will look at his mechanics. Maybe there is some issue there.”
Dehmer said if his kids are producing in the heat of battle, why change them to look like a poster child for perfect mechanics?
“If one of my guys is producing and driving in runs with good at bats or getting people out on the mound by filling up the strike zone, I would be stupid to change their mechanics.
“When guys are struggling, that is when we will go back to the drawing board.”