Sports / The Prairie Fire / April 24, 2008

Crucial weekend after Sunday’s sweep of Monmouth

After consecutive weekend rainouts, the Fire were anxious to step on the first dry diamond they had seen in weeks. Last Sunday carried an extra sense of urgency as the weather had robbed them of an opportunity to regain lost ground in conference play against Grinnell the week before, following a discouraging start to the beginning of the season. The Fire came into Sunday’s double-header at 4-19 (1-3 in conference), but with an opportunity to sweep rival Monmouth and reassert themselves among the scattered South Division, an elevated focus was consistent from opening anthem to final out.

Freshman Jordan Ball was the ace on the hill in game one, where his consistency continued to overshadow inexperience. Shaking off an early opening run in the first inning, Ball pitched well and with confidence, as he was able to keep his pitches down, getting playable balls for his supporting defense.

“The pitching kept the hitters off balance, so they never really hit the ball hard,” said junior John Curtin. “We got a lot of weak ground balls, especially to the left side, and they were easy to field.”

As Curtin maintained, the offense was far from dormant as the Fire racked up nine hits off Monmouth starting pitcher Michael Reed. But the hits were scattered, and slow to produce runs. After senior Luke Hunter tied the game with a second inning solo shot to right, senior Greg Leibach put a single up the middle for an RBI and the 2-1 lead in the third.

Monmouth’s Ryan Stubler solo-homered off Ball in the top of the fourth to tie the game at two, but Curtin came right back in the bottom of the inning with a drive over the left field fence to give the home team the go-ahead run they needed.

“Obviously, it felt real good,” said Curtin. “It didn’t mean that much when I hit it because we were only in the fourth inning. But in retrospect, it was a deciding factor in the game.”

It was, in fact, the run that would win the game for the Fire, but it was the incredible collective effort that would protect that slim lead long enough to earn the win. From sophomore Joey Graeff’s hustle to recover from a base-running mistake to Greg Leibach’s non-factor play of the day that left him somersaulting over a fence after a foul ball. He did not make the catch, but the extra effort and self-sacrifice was evident. And he stuck the landing gracefully. A crucial relay from left field was aptly executed to throw out what would have been the tying run for Monmouth. The play not only protected the lead, but was a huge surge of momentum Knox used to carry them through the end.

“Giving up a lead is always tough, mentally. But a big play like that, what it meant to us score-wise, meant a lot. It wasn’t that spectacular of a play, but it was executed how it was supposed to. We got a great cut-off from [Luke] Hunter, and were able to get the out and protect the lead,” Curtain said.

Junior Sammy Almohandis was stellar in relief as he came into close with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning. After plunking the first batter he pitched to, Almohandis struck out five of the eight batters he faced, giving up only one hit. Giving support where it was needed, the game ended in summarizing fashion as sophomore catcher George Nicholson made a remarkable sliding catch of a foul ball off the back-stop fence. Ball got the W, Almohandis got the save, and the Fire took game one, 3-2.

Game two produced a showcasing performance of freshman Colin Davis, the other half of the proverbial one-two punch that had the Fighting Scots stunned on Sunday. Ball and Davis complement each other in tandem. Davis’ repertoire introduced a lulling curveball that the Monmouth hitters could not figure out after seeing the speed of Ball. And as Davis tired after seven solid innings of work that notched him six strikeouts, Almohandis returned to close with yet another adjustment to configure.

“Jordan and Colin have been doing it since Florida,” said Curtin. “Neither of them will blow you away, but they’ll both hit their spots, and that’s all they really need to do. If they keep getting ground balls, we’ll be there to field them. It’s nice knowing what you have going into the game, with Jordan or Colin to start things out and Sammy to come in and close.”

Game two played out in similar fashion, with Knox and Monmouth trading runs early, until the fifth inning when junior Kevin Malone was able to get around on one and send a two-run shot to right, giving Knox the 3-1 lead. Monmouth pitcher Drew Johnson continued to struggle, and was replaced by Brian Chandler who did not fair much better. Chandler hit junior Adam Estergard in the back, putting Knox runners on first and second. Hunter later scored senior Paul Bennett from second on an RBI single to left, giving Knox substantial separation at 4-1.

Monmouth was able to battle back against Almohandis in the top of the eighth, scoring three runs on a string of hits and an error. But a little verbal encouragement from Coach Jami Isaacson and mental toughness got Almohandis out of the inning, knotted up in a 4-4 tie.

After Hunter popped out to right to begin the bottom of the eighth, junior Nate Ayers got things started with a single to right. Junior Ian Pope came in as a substitute runner for Ayers, and the extra speed proved beneficial, as Curtin dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Pope into scoring position. Bringing up the bottom of the line-up, Joey Graeff came through clutch, stepping in and hitting an RBI double to right, giving Knox the go-ahead they needed. Knox led 5-4 going into the ninth inning.

Getting crucial play from the eight and nine spots, Curtin felt good about the contributions he and Graeff gave on Sunday.

“You know, Joey and I, it’s easy for us to step up and get those big hits. That being said, everyone looks at us to be the spark in the order. It’s nice to see the guys in the top of the order step up and get something done, because the Bash Brothers can’t carry it for the rest of the season. It needs to be a team effort.”

Thankfully, Knox got that team effort in the ninth, after a ball dropped beside Curtin in error, allowing the tying run on base. Almohandis got the double-play ball needed. Estergard trailed from short to make the play up the middle, making a swift sweep over the bag before making the throw to first. Curtin redeemed himself, making sure to, as he put it, “crocodile” the grounder at second, cleanly making the final out to get the 5-4 win, and completing the weekend sweep.

The wins this weekend leave Knox tied with Monmouth for second in the South Division of the Midwest Conference. Looking to solidify a post-season appearance, Knox travels to Monmouth this Saturday for part two of the rivalry series before returning home on Sunday for a make-up double-header against Grinnell. While their current standing guarantees them at least a playoff for post-season entrance, the race is tight on all accounts, making every game imperative. But with last week’s exciting sweep, the Fire will look to continue their success, riding the momentum, and hoping to create more in the process.

“We always know that when we play Monmouth, we’re always more focused,” said Curtin. “We came into the season with high expectations, and the fact that we started out pretty disappointingly, we know how hard it is to come off a slow start. Now that we’ve finally got it going, we’re not going to take anything for granted.”

Ryan Cash

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