The Prairie Fire baseball team had an eventful weekend, playing four conference games that could decide who makes it to the Midwest Conference Tournament. The team faced off against the rival Monmouth Fighting Scots on Saturday, before hosting the Grinnell Pioneers in a make-up series from earlier in the season. The team split both doubleheaders, losing the first game to Monmouth 11-9 before taking the second 9-4, then losing the first game to Grinnell 10-4, and winning the second 12-2. In splitting both day’s games, the Fire forced a four way tie at the top of the Southern Division, with Knox, Monmouth, Grinnell, and Illinois College all sitting at 5-5 for the season, headed into the last week.
After hosting the Scots on Sunday the 20th, the Fire drove down to Monmouth to reciprocate. In the raucous environment any meeting of Knox and Monmouth creates, the teams both played their hearts out, neither backing down and taking one each. The first game was an exercise in frustration, as plays just kept dropping the Scots’ way and starting pitcher freshman Jordan Ball, gave up three earned runs in 3-plus innings, with five hits and seven runs overall. After giving up an RBI single in the third, Knox was able to tie it up in the fourth on the back of an RBI sac-fly by senior third baseman Luke Hunter. Monmouth blew it open though, as Ball, who had been struggling a bit with his command earlier, walked two men, and three errors helped Monmouth bring home six in the inning. Ball only gave up two runs, but the errors were what killed the team there. Sophomore Spencer McNiel came in to finish out the inning for Ball in the fifth. The junior second baseman was hit by a pitch, and advanced to second after sophomore Joey Graeff singled. A wild pitch and a sacrifice grounder brought Curtain home, narrowing the deficit by one. In the bottom of the fifth, Knox reliever sophomore Dan Feldman came in and gave up three runs, two earned, on two hits and an error. In the top of the sixth after scoring again the previous inning, Knox was able to cobble together another four runs off two hits, with two walks and a couple of sacrifice flies. Still, Knox was unable to keep pace with the Scots, as they scored again in the seventh, rounding it out to 11 runs, while the Fire could only take it to nine. Final score Monmouth 11, Knox 9.
“We gave the first one away,” said Graeff. “It was intense though, its always fun to play Monmouth.”
The second game, started by freshman Colin Davis, went altogether another way. Davis was dominant, going seven innings, giving up only one earned run, five strikeouts and seven hits.
“I got a lot of ground balls,” noted Davis, “I’m happy with the number of pitches I threw. I didn’t have my best stuff, but I settled in there after the first inning”
The Monmouth bats were stymied and Knox just kept it going, scoring another nine runs, including a big fifth inning where Knox feasted on some sub par pitching by Monmouth netting two walks and a hit batsman, a double by Kevin Malone, and an RBI single by junior Adam Estergard. Some bad fielding also gave a couple of runs unearned, and Knox was on top, taking the second game and earning the split.
“They (the freshman pitchers) make it easy to play defense,” said Graeff, “ they work so fast.” Graeff had an interesting line score for the weekend, getting walked or hit seven times in 11 at bats with no actual at-bats recorded in Saturday’s second game. He also had two hits. Graeff, despite his middling batting average, is second in on-base percentage, at .435.
“I’ve just been crowding the plate more,” he said. “I get up there in counts, 3-0, 2-1, and the pitcher hits me sometimes, too.” When asked if he likes the opportunity to steal bases, he noted it was a favorite of his. “I love it,” he said with a smile.
Sunday’s games proved to be another set of epic battles, as Knox split once again with Grinnell, giving the first one to them 10-4, but taking the second one 12-2, earning the team its first mercy rule win of the season.
Freshman Justin Cutter came in to start the first game, pitching serviceably, going four innings, giving up three runs on five hits. Senior Paul Bennett, whose bat has really picked up the last couple of weeks, got it going properly with a solo shot in the first, followed by a double by junior Adam Estergard, who came home after some sloppy play by the Grinnell shortstop allowed for some easy base movement. Grinnell tied it up the next inning, small balling Knox, with two singles and a double, bringing home two. Knox also had two errors by Cutter, who was somewhat shaken by the runs scored. He was able to salvage the inning, striking out one, and forcing an easy foul pop-up to first to end the inning. The Pioneers were able to tack on two more in the next two innings, with a homer in Cutter’s last inning of the game, and a bases-loaded hit batter by reliever Spencer McNeil in the fifth. Grinnell pretty much put the nail in the coffin in the seventh and eighth, scoring four in the seventh with a two RBI homer off reliever Aaron Juarez, an RBI double that drove in two unearned, but the bleeding was staunched when Feldman came out of the bullpen and finished the inning with a line out to third base. Knox was able to double its score, with Bennett being driven home in the seventh by a Luke Hunter single to shallow left and Graeff, after being hit by another pitch, stole second, and was driven home by a Paul Bennett single, but it was all for naught, as Feldman let up a homer, a double, and an RBI single in the eighth, before finishing out the ninth to end the game. Knox was silent in the ninth inning.
The second game was the best offensive game Knox has played all year, as the bats, driven by the specter of elimination, burst out of the gate, netting 11 hits, 12 runs, and eight walks. Sophomore Tyler Hopfauf started the game, and was on fire, commanding the zone, and knocking down batter after batter, putting on a wonderful performance. Hopfauf went 5.2 innings, with six hits and two earned runs, keeping Grinnell out of the game as the Fire advanced their lead throughout the game, starting with an RBI triple by Kevin Malone, who came home on a wild pitch. In the fifth inning, after Graeff continued his mastery of the HBP, an Estergard single drove him home, and Bennett doubled to left to drive in Kevin Malone. In the sixth, Jordan Ball, who had thrown 88 pitches just the day before, came in to relieve Hopfauf and shut down the Pioneers, letting up only one hit in the next two and a third innings, keeping Grinnell scoreless. The Fire became better with time, scoring four runs in both the seventh and eighth innings, as all the bats woke up and the wheels really came off for the Grinnell pitchers, giving up six hits and walking seven to give the Fire spectacular chances. Bennett continued his blazing weekend, with a three run shot in the eighth, and Curtain drove in the final run, to make the deficit ten, thus enacting the mercy rule.
“Hoppy came up huge,” said Davis. “He went out there and gave it his best. He was great when we needed him to be. Paul came up big; he’s been killing Grinnell all year. But really, it all came down to Hoppy’s performance.”
At this point, in a most unprecedented situation, there are no less than seven scenarios that could play out this weekend to decide who will be heading to the tournament. With Illinois College coming in, it is a must-win weekend for Knox and with a sweep they can clinch a spot at conference. This is what baseball is all about; a pennant race coming down to the last weekend, and the team is looking to make the school proud.
“We’re up against the ropes here,” said Davis, “but that’s how we like to play.” With a good compliment of loud fans, the school can make IC wish it had stayed home, so come on out, and watch your Fire take it to the playoffs.