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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sikeston duo forms top-notch middle infield

Sunday, March 31, 2002

(Photo)
Adam Garrett, left, and Jamie Puckett
SIKESTON - For the last five years, the Sikeston Bulldogs have consistently fielded one of the top baseball teams in the area.

Every team in that span has had star pitchers, star hitters and maybe a standout fielder here and there.

But rarely does a Bulldog team have two top-notch glovemen on the same infield.

This year's Sikeston team will feature one of the top middle infields in the area with shortstop Adam Garrett and second baseman Jamie Puckett.

The two players formed the area's top double play tandem last season and will be looking to lead the Bulldogs once again this year.

"To be a good team, I'm a big believer that you have to be strong up the middle," said Sikeston head coach Kevin Self. "Since (Garrett and Puckett) were sophomores they've made us strong up the middle. They were a big part of why we were as good as we were last year. I look for the same thing this year."

It's not that no team around has two good fielders like Garrett and Puckett, but most of them rotate as pitchers, leaving a hole at their respective position on the day they're on the mound.

Self says the two players form the best middle infield tandem since Brent Self and Clay Hooper in 1998, but even those two players weren't used as a combination very often.

"We've had some good players like Brent and Clay that had bigger numbers at those positions, but I've never had two of them at the same time that didn't pitch," said Self. "(Self and Hooper) pitched and they weren't in the field together much."

Last season, Puckett only pitched 11 1/3 innings while picking up two wins with a 1.85 earned run average. Garrett didn't pitch at all.

For that reason, both players feel comfortable with the other.

"If (Puckett) was to pitch a lot, then I'd have to learn how to play with somebody else and I'd have to go through some adjustments," said Garrett. "(Puckett and I have) been together so long and we just know how each other is going to react and it just flows. It just comes really easy to us, because we know what each other is going to do."

Although the Bulldogs may rely on more pitching from Puckett this year, the majority of the time he will be the everyday second baseman.

"We work together real well up the middle," said Puckett. "We've played together since we were freshmen on the jayvee. Ever since then we've played well together."

Although both started most of the time as sophomores, they were never penciled in as an everyday fielder at a particular position due to Billy Puckett's fielding prowess, Jamie's older brother.

But the two hardly ever budged in last year's lineup. All too often, the two would bail the Bulldogs out of a tough spot with a double play.

"There's no doubt that they complement each other," said Self. "We turned a lot of double plays last year and most of that is due to the fact that they were the ones handling the relay throw. Both of them get rid of the ball extremely quick and they both have strong arms.

"I think that they have relied on one another to get us out of jams. I think when the game is on the line, I think they both would like the ball hit to them because they both feel like they can make the big play."

It's already happened.

In last year's quarterfinal game against Sullivan, Garrett fittingly flipped the ball to Puckett at second base for a force out to end the game to send the Bulldogs to the 3A Final Four.

But these two aren't just fielding wizards. They can hit too.

The switch-hitting Garrett has been the Bulldogs' leadoff batter every game since his sophomore year.

His production is amplified by his statistics, where he has scored 66 runs the last two seasons. Last year he batted .364 and had 16 RBIs, a quality figure for the leadoff man.

"He's the man to get on base," said Puckett. "He's got the best eye I think of anybody on the team. He's a great leadoff batter."

And the Bulldogs percentages of scoring increase dramatically if Garrett gets on base to lead off the game. Garrett has more runs (66) than hits (57) the last two years, which demonstrates the different ways he reaches base.

"He does whatever it takes to get on, whether it's getting walked or getting hit," said Self. "He's going to be tough to replace next year because he's willing to take pitches and go deep into the count, which has made him a very good leadoff hitter. And that really helps us, because if he leads off a game and gets on, eight times out of ten he's probably going to score. He sets the table."

And reaching base isn't the only thing Garrett brings to the table. He also has tremendous speed, which means more fastballs for the next few batters in the Bulldog lineup. Garrett has stolen 13 bases the last two years.

"When he gets on there are so many ways he can score because he's so fast," said Self. "He can steal, he can score on a ball in the gap. He puts so much pressure on the defense. The defense needs to come up with the ball clean, even on a base hit to left field, or he'll make it to third."

Batting behind Garrett is sophomore Blake DeWitt and Puckett, giving Sikeston a potent batting order.

"I just try to find some way to get on and start things off," said Garrett. "I'm pretty confident when I'm on that I'm going to score because we've got a really good lineup behind me."

Puckett batted No. 2 in the order as a sophomore but was moved to third last year because Self wanted the left-handed swinging DeWitt batting second.

The move paid off big dividends for everybody. Puckett's numbers improved dramatically from a decent sophomore year in which he batted .316 with six extra base hits and 13 runs. Last year he hit .354 with 13 extra base hits including a team-best five triples. He also scored 36 runs and had 22 RBIs. And he has good speed, stealing 13 bases the last two years.

"Jamie had grown a lot and he's gotten a lot stronger," said Self. "I look for him to have a really good senior year. I think his numbers are going to be better than last year. He had a good year last year, but he could have a really good year this year."

Puckett also thinks there is plenty of room for improvement.

"I want to hit a lot better than I did last year," said Puckett. "With DeWitt and Garrett in front of me, I'd like to get that school RBI record of 49."

The Bulldogs will probably need a big year out of Puckett because he won't have the protection of Kent Chappell, an all-state catcher last year, behind him.

Garrett thinks Puckett has what it takes.

"If the first two batters get on, he does a good job of putting the ball in play," said Garrett. "He can go to opposite field or he can pull it. He can do it all."

Puckett has already signed to attend Shawnee Community College where Chappell and Billy Puckett are currently attending.

"Jamie will step right in at Shawnee and play immediately next year," said Self. "After he gets a couple of years under his belt and continues to improve, then he'll probably get a chance to play somewhere else."

Garrett signed with the University of Missouri back in the fall.

"He is the kind of player that they look for," said Self. "If you look at the top part of Mizzou's lineup the last year, their first two or three hitters were all switch hitters, they were fast and they were small. I think he can play at that level. He'll get stronger and bigger and I think he'll do well there."

But finishing up their final year at Sikeston will be the first order of business.

With so many returning players from last year's Class 3A runner up team, Puckett thinks the Bulldogs could have an even better season in 2002.

"I have high expectations. I'm hoping this year is going to be my best year," said Puckett. "We have our whole infield back except for catcher and first base, so I think we'll be pretty solid and do what we did last year, or even better. With Garrett and me up the middle, I think we should be one of the best combinations in the state."