Cundiff-Kee partnership spark No. 10 Thunderbirds

A good catcher is perhaps the warmest of security blankets for a pitcher. For North Callaway senior right-hander Grant Cundiff, that catcher is senior Zak Kee.

“My comfort level with him is unbelievable; I trust him and he trusts me, and we’re constantly on the same page with pitches,” Cundiff said. “It’s an amazing feeling to have a catcher be on the same page as you are.”

Kee shared Cundiff’s sentiment.

“We kind of have that mind thing where he can throw the baseball and I know where it’s going to be,” Kee said.

And on senior night Thursday against the Mexico Bulldogs, the pair that started playing together as 8-year-olds combined on a commanding performance.

Cundiff stymied Mexico’s lineup on just three hits in five scoreless innings as unbeaten and state-ranked North Callaway blistered the Bulldogs 13-0.

Mexico got two of those hits to lead off the game. Bulldogs shortstop Dillon Jerichow drove a 3-2 offering from Cundiff to the fence in left for a leadoff single. Left fielder Daniel Calaluce reached on the very next pitch by way of a drag bunt for an infield single.

Cundiff recovered by retiring 15 of the last 19 batters he faced, including seven on strikeouts. He issued only one walk and allowed just one batter to get past second base.

“He did a very good job of mixing up his pitches and hitting his spots,” Thunderbirds head coach Kevin O’Neal said. “He and Zak always work well together, and they both had great days.”

Cundiff’s curveball was something to behold. He used it for two of his strikeouts and sprayed it around the plate at will in an attempt to keep Mexico on its toes in the batter’s box.

“That’s one of his strengths in that he throws that curveball really well and also has a good off-speed changeup that he throws,” O’Neal said. “He does a good job of mixing those in with his curve ball to keep hitters off-balance.”

It’s also easy to get in a groove when you know the guy crouching behind the plate is going to be able to handle your stuff.

“Sometimes pitchers think that if they hit the spot, the catcher might not stop it and it can start to mess with them and cause them to let the curveball fly,” Cundiff said. “Being able to be comfortable with your catcher allows you to just relax.”

Kee called the game from behind the plate and he directed the Thunderbirds offensively with his bat. He started the bottom of the first with a double to left off Mexico left-handed starter Haylon Jacobs, one of two hits that led to three runs in the inning by North Callaway (13-0).

Jacobs had powerful stuff but had fits with his control by walking six batters, including three straight in the bottom of the second.

He gave up a run in the second when Kee sent a 2-2 fastball over the fence in left for a solo home run to put North Callaway up 4-0. Kee ended the game a triple short of the cycle, going 3-for-4 with three runs scored.

“He shows a lot of discipline at the plate and he works pitchers deep into counts,” Cundiff said. “When he sees a pitch he likes, he’s on it and goes for it.”

Kee’s play in the leadoff spot jolted the Thunderbirds into coming up with 12 hits, including six in a big third inning that saw North Callaway send 10 batters to the plate.

Jacobs left after giving up a one-out single to Kee in the bottom of the third, ending with a line of 2 1/3 innings, seven earned runs, five walks and four strikeouts.

“We were just going to be aggressive on the fastball,” O’Neal said of Jacobs. “He had trouble getting his curve and other pitches over for a strike, so we wanted to be patient on the fastball and we did a good job of that on the night.”

The Thunderbirds’ Nos. 1-4 hitters were a combined 8-for-10 with six RBI. Junior first baseman Collin Brinker went 3-for-3 with three RBI, while junior shortstop Zach Lavy was 2-for-2 with two RBI to continue his torrid hitting pace.

“That’s something we’ve talked about all year is being patient at the plate and selective with our at-bats,” O’Neal said. “We got three runs in that first inning but I don’t think we had very good at-bats, so I think the kids did a good job of adjusting.”

North Callaway — tied with Oak Grove for No. 10 in Class 3 — hosts South Callaway in a Mid-Missouri Conference rivalry game at 5 p.m. today. The Bulldogs (8-5) punished Missouri Military Academy 17-3 on Thursday night.

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