Sports / The Prairie Fire / May 8, 2008

Three for four, playoffs and more

Twenty-two years ago a baby was born in western Connecticut. Nobody knew it then, but his arrival at Knox College would coincide with the triumph of the Prairie Fire baseball team over the MWC Southern Division for the first time since his birth. This baby was me. In epic fashion the Knox baseball team has seized control of its division, winning three hard-fought games out of four in a stretch of only two days. Young men stepped up all over the field, and took what was rightfully Knox’s to have, setting the stage for a wonderful weekend of baseball.

“Baseball is all about hitting in the right place,” said senior Paul Bennett. “There’s always a chance to pull it out.”

Bennett had an especially outstanding weekend and is in the running for South hitter of the year. On the weekend, he went 8-18 with four RBIs and two walks, including a two home run game on Saturday against Illinois College. He, along with the rest of the team, was able to bludgeon the IC Blue Boys into submission twice in two days, beating them 11-8 on Saturday before dropping the second game of the day 7-4, then winning the rubber match on Sunday, in the playoff to decide who goes to conference, 9-7.

The bats were not the only thing on fire though, as the pitching, both new and veteran came in and effectively shut down a lot of big hitters, enabling Knox to take the lead and hold it whenever they had to. Freshmen Colin Davis, Jordan Ball, and Justin Cutter all came in with high pressure and performed like grizzled veterans, and sophomore Tyler Hopfauf and junior Sam Almohandis came out of the bullpen to keep the opposing teams on the ropes. Ball had an amazing weekend, reminiscent of Randy Johnson in the 2001 World Series, as he started one game on Saturday, allowing only three runs on ten hits over 6.1 innings, then came in to relieve on Sunday in both games, pitching a total of nine innings over the two games against IC and Monmouth, allowing only one earned run on four hits over the course of the two games.

“I didn’t know coach (Isaacson) was going to use me like that,” said Ball. “I’m not used to having to constantly warm up like that, but my adrenaline was pumping, and I was real happy to be out there.”

By his own estimation, Ball threw about 225 pitches over the course of the two days, give or take a couple of warm up pitches. Even with this marathon weekend, he loved it. For his efforts Ball was awarded the MWC Pitcher of the Week award, a rarity for such a young player.

“It was a great experience for me. The fans were really getting into it; it was a real good time. Plus, winning Pitcher of the Week felt great; I didn’t even know until [sophomore Dan] Feldman texted me ‘congratulations’, so I’m pumped,” he said.

Ball, and the other pitchers, stepped up in a big way, particularly the underrated Cutter.

“Cutter had his best outing of the year,” said Bennett. “He got ahead in the count, got lazy fly balls hit. He was a big part of why we won.”

Cutter went 3.2 innings on Sunday, the playoff game, giving up five hits and two runs and facing 16 hitters, before being relieved by sophomore Spencer McNeil in the fourth.

“We had some timely hitting,” said Ball. “We got a bunch of home runs against IC (six in all), we had some errors, but we hit well.”

Ball also noted the presence of freshman Danny Salvato, considered by many to be highly underused and underappreciated. As Ball said, “Danny’s got more heart in his little body than Paul Bennett has muscle in his big arms.”

Probably the sweetest thing about the whole weekend was the game at Monmouth College to decide who was first and who was second in the division. In a bizarre twist,

Knox was the home team, despite playing on the Scots field. A rough start by sophomore Tyler Hopfauf, in which he let up five runs, three earned, on five hits and a walk, got instantly better when Davis came out of the bullpen in the second and pitched 5.2 innings, letting up only one run on six hits with two strikeouts. Knox took advantage of the ability of their young pitchers, scoring two runs in the third to double their score, then five in the fifth on the back of some sloppy play by Monmouth, and a homer by junior Kevin Malone to seal the deal on the Scots.

With a hectic weekend over, the team looks to Friday, May 9 and hosting the powerhouse Ripon Red Hawks, who were ranked as high as 23rd in the country in D-III baseball, before being swept this weekend by the St. Norbert Green Knights. Even so, they are a tough team, with no less than five players hitting over .350 on the year, and three pitchers with ERA’s of under four.

“Ripon is a good team,” said Bennett. “It will take a big effort on our part. At this point, though we all have the same record, we’re all equals.”

Bennett noted, though, that getting going early was key.

“We can’t get bogged down, and they can crumble if they go down. Baseball is a game of failure; you just have to over come it,” he said.

The really important thing, noted Bennett, was to get the other team out one, two, three and get some runs scored early.

“Getting on top is what we like to do. You can’t get down, then just flip a switch and get some runs,” he said.

Ball was excited and ready to go, even with the insane weekend he had.

“I’ll be good to go. I’ve been resting up, and Scott worked on me on Monday. I just have to concentrate on every at bat, every pitch. There is nothing you can overlook here,” he said.

And so, as the cream of the Midwest Conference descends upon Knox, the team is ready and willing to go out there and dominate. Led by coach Isaacson, the Fire are not something to be overlooked or brushed aside and after 22 years, the team is hungry to bring some glory back to Blodgett field (which is going through a quick make-over prior to the tournament) and show that Knox is not just about academics. The chance is there, its time to snatch it.

Merritt Rohlfing

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