Arizona is usually the place where the elderly go to regain their youth; just ask Shaquille O’Neal. The Knox College baseball team took a trip down to Tempe to regain the form that won them a conference championship and a trip to the national tournament last year, but in their case it was as far from turning back the clock as you can go. In the 11 games the Fire played down in the desert, they scored 50 runs to their opponents 123, and dropped all their games to the other team, going 0-11 for the week.
“Here’s what I take away, we stunk, we weren’t very good,” Coach Jami Isaacson said. “At times we competed, we lost five games by two runs or less, but we didn’t field it very well, we didn’t pitch it very well, and we didn’t get very many two-out hits. We had some guys do some very nice things, but overall, team-wise, we didn’t play very good baseball.”
For the trip, the Fire batted .242 as a team, nothing to be proud of, and their opponents batted a nice round .400, with an OBP of .487. With the meat of last year’s lineup gone, it is the defense and pitching Isaacson is looking toward to carry the team. Only three players that stepped to the plate more than 10 times ended up hitting over .300. Senior centerfielder Kevin Malone racked up a .429 average, while sophomores Bob Dempster and Logan Willits notched averages of .354 and .367, respectively. It was the pitching, though, that caused the most worry for the squad. Sophomore Jordan Ball, who was incredible at the end of last season during Knox’s championship drive, ended the week with an ERA of 18.00, as he pitched only six innings in four appearances. His strikeout total was only two and he walked 13 batters.
“Absolutely we’re worried,” Isaacson said. “Jordan didn’t handle the moment very well. He didn’t handle the transition from a very good freshman year to a sophomore year yet. He’s got to get better. For the ball club to get better, Jordan Ball has to get better.”
The problems on the mound did not stop with Ball. While fellow sophomore Colin Davis pitched decently, his numbers were still down from a year ago, as he posted an ERA of 6.75. He was striking out batters at a faster clip than walking them, and should not be a worry. Junior Dan Feldman’s ERA was up around 8.10 in two appearances and fellow junior Spencer McNeil at 7.50, and as a whole, the pitching staff, including new additions like sophomore Zach Ricketts, Dempster, and Willits, had an ERA of 9.65.
To say it was all downside for the Fire though, would be to lie to the fan base. Several players emerged from the pack to give Isaacson some hope, both defensively and at the plate. Freshman David Jewell was one of them.
“Coming back from Arizona, David will be hitting from the six or seven hole and starting right field,” Isaacson said. “He’s starting to get in shape, and we really like where he’s going to be, especially for the next month or so.”
While batting only .200 on the trip, Jewell drove in six runs, and had an OBP of .419. Right field, the old stomping grounds of Paul Bennett, is a big space to fill, but Isaacson is hopeful this freshman can show something special.
Another young player that made a splash is everyman sophomore Logan Willits, who plays most positions on the infield, as well as pitching in a jam.
“Logan comes to practice and games every day prepared. To use a baseball adage, he is a dirtbag; he’s a guy in the dirt all the time. He puts his nose into it and competes.”
At this point, Willits looks to be at second base, and is learning on the job, while Isaacson hopes for very good things out of him.
With the team’s goal every year being to win the Midwest Conference, Isaacson is not punching the big red button quite yet. With three twin bills already rained out, the team has not had time to play on Blodgett Field, but even so, every day is a day of preparation.
“The thing about baseball is, you’ve got to play,” Isaacson said. “You can’t simulate all the situations you have in baseball. That’s why the big boys play 162 of them; it’s hard to simulate every situation. But, we’ve got our sea legs under us, so to speak. We’re not in a panic mode whatsoever. Everything we do is to… compete for a championship.”
The record out west notwithstanding, the team is loose and ready to play, and with any luck and a little help from the weather, a game will be played at home, on Sat., April 4. The defense of the championship begins there in earnest, and the Fire look to burn it up once again.
Colin Davis is a Sports Editor for TKS.