Ethan Hankins doesn't want to let any hitters reach base, but there's a certain type of allowance that the Forsyth Central senior righthander and potential top-10 MLB Draft pick abhors the most.
"I'd rather somebody hit a ball off the wall than have me end up giving them a free base," Hankins said.
That got Hankins particularly fired up in the second inning of the Bulldogs' game on Monday night against Milton. He issued his second walk of the inning to load the bases with two outs, and that brought Central pitching coach Brian Bull out to the mound.
Bull asked Hankins if he was okay. Hankins said he was, and that he was going to strike out the next hitter on three fastballs.
Hankins then sent his tempo into overdrive, scarcely giving the Milton's Mitch Landon time to get set between pitches, with three heaters, he whiffed Landon and got out of the inning. That was the only time Hankins or reliever Jacob Ryan significantly labored during the game, and the Bulldogs came away with a 2-0 win, moving them closer to a state playoff berth after an inauspicious start to the season.
The requisite crowd of talent evaluators was out at Central's field on Monday, and it included San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller. Hankins, in his third outing since missing roughly a month due to a shoulder issue, threw four innings, and while he was originally pegged to a pitch count of 50, he talked the Bulldogs' coaches into going over that to throw the fourth inning. Hankins said that he hopes to be able to go as long as the Bulldogs need him by next week, or potentially in the playoffs.
That would be another positive development for a team that has shown an ability to win mainly off its arms. The Bulldogs (10-14, 6-4 Region 5-7A) have been outscored 48-57 overall in region play, but they've done enough to back up their starters when they're on. Central got two runs in the second, off a wild pitch and an RBI single from Chase Nufer, and prevented Eagles righthander Cole Stupp from cruising along at any point.
And while Ryan didn't overwhelm like Hankins did, he was steady in three innings of work, allowing two hits and recording three strikeouts.
In Hankins' view, the Bulldogs turnaround has a good amount to do with confidence, which was wavering for Central after the opening non-region stretch, during which the Bulldogs went 2-10, the worst record among region teams.
"Everybody was really down, especially the underclassmen and the sophomores and one freshman -- I felt like we were all down on ourselves," Hankins said. "And we realized we were actually good when we beat Lambert. We gained more confidence in ourselves, and it's carried over."
Bulldogs head coach Kevin McCollum didn't discount that factor, but he also had a more plain explanation.
"(It's) just playing better baseball," McCollum said, "not beating ourselves as much as we were earlier in the year."