Nine pitchers made appearances for Morris during the 2013 varsity baseball season as three rotation regulars — Brian Henry, Nick Evola and Tim Smyk — missed time with injuries.
The one constant for the Morris staff — other than senior right-hander Preston Miracle, who made nine starts and 13 total appearances — was the guy on the receiving end of its pitches. Senior catcher Jake Capko appeared in all 34 of the Redskins’ games, and coach Todd Kein credits him with helping the team overcome its health issues to go 27-7 and post a team ERA of 2.39.
Morris and its pitchers also benefited from what Capko did offensively. His .579 on-base percentage was an area high, and his .407 batting average and 1.114 on-base plus slugging led the Redskins. Capko was particularly potent in Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference East play, batting .486 and earning conference Player of the Year honors.
For his defensive and offensive contributions to the Redskins, Capko is the 2013 Morris Daily Herald All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
Behind the plate
Prior to his sophomore year at Morris, Capko was not a full-time catcher. He caught some, but about half the time, he estimates, he was assigned an atypical position for a catcher — middle infielder.
As Capko progressed through high school, he says, it became obvious that there was a hole at catcher for his grade level. It is one he has filled for the past three seasons. Him staying there has been beneficial to the Redskins, and likely to Capko’s chances of playing college baseball. He committed to Illinois Wesleyan University during the school year.
“I’ve always played pretty much wherever the coaches have wanted me,” Capko said. “I’m happy to (catch) ... Me and my dad have talked about how it keeps you more involved than any other position, and it’s a good position to play to get noticed (by college coaches).”
By the beginning of Capko’s junior season, he says, Kein started trusting him to call pitches on his own.
“He calls a heck of a game,” Kein said of Capko. “Jake’s the kind of catcher we don’t have to call pitches for. He knows the pitching staff and calls the right pitch at the right time. Our pitchers get the credit when they execute a pitch, but part of the reason they’re able to execute is that he’s so in tune with the pitcher.”
Only once during Capko’s baseball career, he says, did his coach not allow him to call pitches himself, so it is a task with which he is very familiar. This season presented some unique challenges for Capko as he was forced to formulate game-plans for a revolving door of pitchers.
“Depending on where hitters are in the lineup and depending on something I may see in a batter’s stance or their batting style. I would actually look at our past games against a team and compare the first game and second game and see what I’ve been doing with our pitchers,” Capko said.
“I also tried to work to their strengths. Like with Nick Evola, our lefty, he doesn’t throw very hard, so I would have to pitch him backwards. I would call for curveballs in different situations than I would for most of our pitchers, situations where I would call fastballs for Preston Miracle.”
According to Kein, with Capko behind the plate, not only were the Redskins’ opponents unable to even attempt to steal many bases, but they were also forced to be cautious with secondary leads on the basepaths.
“He has a great ability to snap off a throw,” Kein said of Capko. “He’s fearless about it. He’ll snap one to second, he’ll snap one to first and he’ll snap one to third, really in any situation. He’s more than capable of executing those throws at any time. People seeing him do those types of things kept opposing runners at bay, to a large extent, and that’s to his credit.”
At the plate
Capko was a .233 hitter as a junior. The same qualities that allowed him to draw an area-high 36 walks this spring may have supressed his numbers the year prior.
“I’ve always tried to be a patient hitter and tried to wait for my pitch. At times, I’ve had a hard time with being too patient,” Capko said.
“(Kein) wants you to be aggressive. I know at times last year I would get a first-pitch fastball and I would take it, and it would be called a strike. I would look down to third base and he’d be giving me an angry look because he’d want me to swing at that pitch. Obviously, this year it worked out for me. Sometimes last year I struggled with strikeouts and it didn’t work out.
“This year, I learned to lay off pitches if got down in the count and they weren’t in the strike zone. That’s what happened this year, was I was a patient hitter at the right times. With close pitches when I was down in the strike zone, I would fight ‘em off, and then I’d take the pitches that were out of the zone.”
Going into this season, Capko says he did not expect to have a .407 batting average. And according to him, early in the year, such an average would have seemed out of reach.
I started off hitting OK this year,” Capko said. “Then, probably a third of the way through the season, I said to myself, ‘I need to turn it up if I want to play college baseball.’ I told myself that, and from there, things went great. I was able to help my team by hitting the ball.”
To Capko, his hitting — and his defense — would almost certainly not be what they are today had he not started playing club ball for the Illinois Sparks out of Orland Park. He had previously played for the Wiers Baseball Academy but joined the Sparks midway through his prep career.
“I would say it’s the biggest decision I have made in my baseball career. It’s a whole different level, playing for them. It’s really competitive,” Capko said. “When you get out on the field, everyone is so top-notch there.”
Playing club baseball is just one example of the kind of extra effort Capko has regularly put in, says Kein.
“I think it’s pretty simple. He just spends more time on the game of baseball,” Kein said, when asked what sets Capko apart from other players he has coached from a work-ethic standpoint.
“Jake’s a kid who eats, breathes and sleeps the game. In the way he carries himself as a player, it’s evident how much time he puts in. He’s constantly watching the game and working on aspects of it. Some might call it an obsession, but I call it a love for the game.”