On a team dominated by juniors, the Manhattan High baseball team has three seniors that see everyday playing time.
While seniors Jake Priddle and Josh Klug have kept their usual spots in the outfield and infield, respectively, TJ Giller has had a season filled with adjustments.
After a high school career that mostly centered around being a pitcher, Giller took over at shortstop this year for the injured Jonah Webber and has excelled as an infielder.
“Coming into the year, we weren’t sure if TJ was just going to pitch or play in the field,” Manhattan head coach Don Hess said. “He showed up with his glove in hand, ready to take some ground balls and as it turns out, Jonah Webber got hurt and we’ve missed him all year. That provided TJ, or anybody else, with the opportunity to jump in at short.”
Make no mistake, Giller has played in the infield before. Coming from a baseball family and playing most of his life, he’s seen time in the infield. But even Hess was pleasantly surprised with the defensive and offensive production from his senior.
“TJ has done a remarkable job for us,” Hess said. “He’s probably better suited to play third base, but his instincts and his understanding of the game have allowed him to really play a terrific shortstop for us. He’s had some ballgames where he’s not only played great defense, but he’s hit the ball well. He’s had some really key hits for us this year too. He’s performing like you would hope one of your quality seniors would perform.”
Hess said part of what makes Giller so good is his work ethic.
“We’re real proud of TJ, because the expectations are high and he shows up everyday trying to become a better baseball player,” he said. “And that’s exactly the kind of guy you want to coach.”
As the season got underway, Giller had to put his own personal interests aside for the good of the team. The senior signed in the fall to pitch for Emporia State next year, but has seen his opportunities to pitch dwindle.
“Whatever is best for the team,” Giller said. “I’ll get an opportunity to pitch some this summer, so it’ll be a little weird, but I think I can handle it. I’m going to talk to (Emporia State head coach Bob Fornelli) about playing some short when I get there.”
Hess said Giller’s switch is more about what he brings to the defense than anything else.
“We’re a better team with him at shortstop,” Hess said. “So every once in a while you run into a situation like that where you have to decide which one benefits the team the most. While we have confidence in him on the mound, we have really enjoyed the luxury of having him at shortstop, because it makes us a better team.”
Giller said he chose Emporia State because of the coaching staff.
“They have a great program,” Giller said. “I heard so much about Coach Fornelli and his honesty and how much the players trust him. I had two other options, Washburn in Topeka and Newman in Wichita. I chose Emporia State because I like the location, and the coach had high standards. I liked everything about it.”
After an up-and-down start to the season, Manhattan is finally firing on all cylinders as it prepares for playoff baseball.
The team hosts its four-team regional, which also includes Lawrence (13-7), Topeka High (5-15) and Junction City (6-14). The day begins with third-seeded Lawrence playing seventh-seeded Junction City at 2 p.m., before Manhattan plays Topeka High at 4 p.m. The two winners play each other with a state berth on the line.
Manhattan swept Topeka High in the first doubleheader of the season, winning 15-5 in game one and 16-0 in the nightcap. Hess said both teams have improved since then.
“Considering they were our first opponent of the year, it’s really hard to read anything into that,” he said. “We’re pitching the ball better, I’m assuming they are too. It’s hard to tell from the beginning of April until now, because over the case of 20 games, we’ve both changed a little bit.
“We’re in a position where we’re not going to overlook anybody, even though we had success against them the first time around. This is a whole different beast when you talk about playoff baseball.”
Should they advance, the Indians would likely see Lawrence in the second game, though Hess thinks Junction City has a chance the way they’ve played lately.
“About the last 10 times (Manhattan and Lawrence) have played each other, it’s been a one-run game,” he said. “We’ve won some, they’ve won some, it’s a dogfight. We’re not looking ahead to Lawrence or anybody else because a week ago Junction City beat Shawnee Heights and then turned around and beat Hays 1-0.”
A big factor in these regional games is managing the pitching staff. For Manhattan, quality depth is a luxury.
“We feel like we have three or four guys that are throwing pretty well,” Hess said. “But they’ve got to be good on that one day, and that’s the challenge. Are they going to be good? And if they’re not good, when do you go to the next guy. There’s a lot of rolling of the dice.”