A routine double-header turned into a marathon for Knox baseball this past Saturday, as the Prairie Fire faced off in their first Midwest Conference game against Grinnell. Six hours and 22 innings later, there was only a partial conclusion to the day’s story, as Knox lost the first game, 4-2, with the night-cap called at the end of the 11th inning on account of darkness, tied at four.
“Ton of baseball,” Coach Jami Isaacson said. “We definitely got better. I thought we pitched extremely well, we fielded it really well, we panicked a little on a couple of cutoff situations, but we will get that worked out with playing more games.”
It was a nigh on endless day at the ballpark, and both coaches had to dip into their bullpens to give some extended work to their pitchers. Knox’s Jordan Ball, sophomore, started the first game, pitching masterfully and allaying any worries that Isaacson voiced earlier in the season. Ball pitched 6.2 innings, striking out eight with no walks, and allowing only two runs on a homerun in the fifth inning. He was relieved by junior Spencer McNeil, who pitched lights-out for three innings, before letting up a run and plunking a batter, sending senior Sam Almohandis to close it out. Almohandis struck out one, but was uncharacteristically lit up on four hits in his one inning and allowing one run.
“Jordan Ball got better, no doubt,” Issacson said. “He attacked the strike zone, his fastball and cutter were very good, and we’re excited about where he could go.”
With McNeil getting the hook in the eleventh it looked like the Fire may have handed the game to the Pioneers, considering how on fire he was, but Isaacson knows his team more than anyone, and was not about to risk pressure on a key cog this early in the season.
“His [McNeil’s] legs were starting to go a little bit, and at that point he had been through the order two times,” Isaacson said. “We really liked the effort, where he was at, his pitch count was up a little bit, and not that I wasn’t comfortable with him, I just thought at that time was a good time to get Sammy in.”
Almohandis’ difficult outing notwithstanding, Isaacson has unflappable faith in his senior closer.
“If he performs,” Isaacson said. “I’ll hand him the ball the last inning every time.”
It was the bats, and their inability to get the hit when it mattered, that doomed the Fire in the first game. Despite collecting 12 hits, including a 3-for-5 day with an RBI for senior George Nicholson, sophomore Alex Petik hitting 2-for-5 and senior Kevin Malone getting two in four tries, the Fire left ten men on base, twice with men on the corners. In the end, Grinnell simply got the hit when it needed it, while Knox just could not let it drop.
The beauty of a double-header lies in the quick turnaround, and the losing team’s chance to get one right back. And so half an hour after the first matchup, the last half of the day commenced, this time with sophomore Colin Davis, he of the bottomless curveball, on the hill for the Prairie Fire.
“Colin is probably our most consistent pitcher,” Isaacson said. “He’s in and out. He’s going to throw four pitches around the zone. He’s going to get people on their front foot. We’ve grown accustomed, in the short period of time of Colin doing what Colin does, so, yeah, to say the least, I’ve very happy with Colin right now.”
Consistency is an easy way to put what Davis was doing up there on the mound. The only thing flapping, or more accurately fluttering, were opponents’ bats and his tousled coif. His line for the day could be interchanged with any game from last year, as he pitched seven innings, letting up three runs on 11 hits, with a walk and one strikeout.
He held Grinnell’s designated hitter, who hit a dinger the previous game, to only one hit, and constantly induced shallow flies and soft grounders around the diamond. He was relieved in the eighth by junior Tyler Hopfauf, who simply gunned batters down, striking three players out over three innings of work, though he did allow one run to cross. Almohandis came in again in the last inning played, this time in beautiful form as he faced five batters, walking one, allowing a hit, giving up no runs and coming out of the inning unscathed.
It was batting that again hurt the Prairie Fire, as they collected four runs on nine hits, but again, leaving 12 men stranded on base throughout the game. Isaacson was forced to dip deep into the bench, even having Ball pinch hit in the final inning, also allowing him to bring Ball in as a reliever on Saturday, should the game continue past the 12th inning.
Seniors Adam Estergard and Nate Ayers had two hits, Estergard’s in three tries while being hit twice, Ayers in five at-bats. Kevin Malone was 1-for-3 with an RBI and two walks. The Fire stole four bases, with Estergard getting caught in the act.
At the end of the eleventh, the umpires ruled it was too dark to see, and called the game a tie, to be resumed when Knox visits Grinnell on Saturday before another scheduled twin-bill. Even with all the baseball though, the coach feels the team is more ready than anything.
“It got us back into a rhythm after being off for twelve days, the kids played their hearts out,” Isaacson said. “We didn’t catch a break in the first game, and they bounced back and played extremely hard in the second game.”
Knox next faces Eureka today at Galesburg High School, to take advantage of the lights there, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Isaacson hopes this non-conference contest can give his guys a chance to warm up before what could be an important weekend.
“Baseball is about rhythm and timing,” Isaacson said. “When you play college baseball, unlike professional baseball where you play every day, you have to somehow, in your way, find that rhythm. I like to play those Wednesday, Thursday games so we get to see light pitching, we get game atmosphere, and it’s always nice to get out under the lights, not miss class.”
A potentially seismic shift could occur on Saturday, and with a sweep of Grinnell, along with a win of the postponed game, Knox could leap to the top off the standings. No matter what happens, it is a big day for the team this early in the season.