During the dog days of summer, nothing can put a damper on someone as much as a storm on a muggy, mid-August day.
Michael Lutterloh’s 16u Firecrackers softball team encountered a gnarly mid-August storm during the 2016 Triple Crown/USA ESPN Nationals in New York. Thunder crashed overhead and Lutterloh bellowed out, “Everyone, get under the bridge!”
Both on and off the diamond, the upbeat 18-year-olds are seldom found apart.
Over the past three years, they’ve risen through the ranks of Lutterloh’s Firecracker organization while cruising through competition up and down California’s coastline.
After they finished their high school senior seasons last year, the three decided to continue their career’s together with the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.
Growing up, the battery of King and Baldwin attended Huntington Beach’s Marina High School, located just 4.8 miles from world-famous Sunset Beach. De La Cruz went to Vista Murrieta High School, nestled just southeast of Lake Elsinore off Interstate 215.
Though they never played against each other in high school, De La Cruz’s bat met a Baldwin pitch for the first time when the two were eighth-graders. During the contest, De La Cruz smashed a home run off of her future teammate.
“We originally met when my old (travel) team, the Storm, played the (Firecrackers) in a semi-final game,” De La Cruz said. “I remembered meeting (Baldwin and King) and then thinking, ‘You guys are totally going to beat us.’ Then we beat them.”
Just a year later, the three joined forces on the Firecrackers.
Over a three-year span, going against top-notch competition from all over the country propelled the girls to become some of the most accomplished players in the country.
From 2014-2017, the west-coast girls compiled five tournament championships and two runner-up finishes with the Firecrackers, including the August 2016 trip to New York.
“The competition and our coaches really prepared us for the next level,” King said. “Coach (Lutterloh) helped us prepare by having us do so many hard things and it made us mentally ready.
“He would book extra trips for us to get us ready for college,” De La Cruz said. “He would always say, ‘This is what you’re going to have to do in college,’ and would expect the most out of us.”
The day after the girls hid under the bridge from the storm, Baldwin’s pitching instructor, Amanda Freed, who was calling the game on ESPN, praised the battery of her right-handed student and King in a game against the Louisville Stunners.
That Firecrackers saw 15 players from their 2017 18u team sign college National Letters of Intent, but De La Cruz, Baldwin and King were the only three that would continue their careers together.
“(Going from California to Tennessee) is a big change,” De La Cruz said. “It was easier coming along with (King) and (Baldwin). The whole team and the coaches have been welcoming, so it hasn’t been as hard as I thought.”
For Baldwin and King, working together their entire careers as pitcher and catcher has enabled the duo to have success early on.
The 5-foot-7-inch King caught Baldwin’s first career complete-game shutout in a 6-0 win over Akron in February. In 26.1 innings, the battery has given up six earned runs while producing 14 strikeouts and only allowing six walks.
“We’ve known each other for such a long time, so playing travel ball and high school ball together made us more comfortable with each other,” King said. “She’s not afraid to shake me off or anything.
“It’s brought us closer,” Baldwin said. “Going through everything with high school and travel ball and pretty much growing up together as players has brought us so much closer.”
De La Cruz’s big bat has made the trip eastward on Interstate 40 to Middle Tennessee.
Since the start of the season, the violent-swinging third baseman is hitting .294 with three doubles, two home runs and 16 RBI.
Her biggest performance came against Marist College, when she finished 3-for-4 with a double, three RBIs and a stolen base.
The immeasurable stat that hasn’t been kept for the Lake Elsinore, California, native: the aggressive grunt she lets out when she sends a ball for a ride.
“In travel ball (King and Baldwin) heard it, too – I used to grunt all the time,” De La Cruz said.
“It’s the funniest thing, because sometimes (De La Cruz) will grunt, and it won’t be a good hit,” Baldwin chuckled. “Sometimes, she’ll pop up to second and do it.”
Murfreesboro weather is bound to spit storms that put a damper on things. However, over the next four years, Middle Tennessee’s sunny days will be a little brighter thanks to three freshmen from California who’ve stormed the diamond for the Blue Raiders this spring.