Heading into last weekend’s games, the Knox baseball team was sitting not so pretty, having not earned any wins on the season. With the prospect of three conference games on Saturday, the outcome of an exhibition with Eureka College was key in the team’s gaining momentum for the trip to Grinnell. With some inspired pitching performances, coupled with timely hitting and tight defense, the Prairie Fire earned their first win, 7-5 against Eureka, before taking it to the Pioneers, and coming away with two wins in three matchups, winning 5-4 in the makeup game, then dropping one 12-1 before taking the final game of the day 5-4.
Knox’s Thursday night game against Eureka College was a chance for them to find their timing and get some innings in for pitchers that don’t see the hill as much as they’d like to. The starting pitcher, junior Daniel Feldman, was impressive, working around the zone and keeping the opposition to only three hits and two runs, one earned, in three innings.
“Dan pitched real well in Arizona, probably should have had two wins,” Coach Jami Isaacson said. “He earned himself a start back here. As long as Danny’s 1-0, 1-1, or 0-1, he’s in good shape. Living on the outside, letting kids roll over it, I thought he did a real nice job Thursday getting ahead of hitters and allowing himself to pitch to contact.”
Feldman was relieved by junior Aaron Juarez, who went three, giving up four hits, two earned runs and three runs overall.
“[Aaron’s] velocity was good, but he wasn’t very sharp,” Isaacson said. “When he was around the plate he was lights out. Aaron’s going to be huge for us. He’s worked real hard, and I expect good things as the season progresses.”
Sophomore Zach Ricketts, another new addition to the pitching staff, came in for the seventh to face only three batters before the Spencer McNeil-Sammy Almohandis sequence came in for the final two frames. The Knox set-up man and closer were strong, each netting two strikeouts. Juarez, by virtue of having some offensive support during his time on the hill, was credited with the win.
The game was back and forth as Eureka struck for a run in the second, to which Knox answered right back in the bottom of the frame. In the sixth, Eureka pulled ahead, 5-3, but in the bottom of that inning, after some sloppy pitching by Eureka that loaded the bases and pushed one across, a three-RBI double by senior Adam Estergard gave Knox the crooked number. After that, it was a matter of time, as Isaacson gave the ball to his veteran late inning men, who shut it down for the Fire’s first win of the season. Senior Kevin Malone went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and two walks, Estergard was 2-for-4 with the big blow, and junior George Nicholson went 1-for-3 with two RBIs on the day.
After grabbing its first win of the year, Knox took that momentum with them to Iowa, as they faced Grinnell, with the end of a postponed game preceding a Saturday doubleheader. Starting in the top of the 12th, with the Fire the home team, the stalemate continued for four innings. Almohandis logged his longest day of the year, pitching six shutout innings in total to keep the Pioneers at bay. In the bottom of the 16th, junior Joey Graeff led off with a double and was pushed to third by a sacrifice bunt by junior Alex Petik. Grinnell then chose to pitch to Malone, who laced one to center, driving in Graeff and sealing the game for the Fire, their first conference win of the season.
“We got that big hit,” Isaacson said. “[Malone] got his foot down, and he got a fastball, drove it into right-center field gap and we evened up our season in conference.”
Riding another high, the Fire made the quick turnaround and gave Grinnell their field back. The first game of the twin-bill was started by sophomore Jordan Ball, who was coming off a great outing against the Pioneers the previous weekend. His line on the day read two innings pitched, with five hits, five earned runs, four walks and a hit batsman. He recorded only one strikeout on the day.
“Jordan definitely struggled,” Isaacson said. “We’ve got to get back to work on that.”
Ball was relieved by Ricketts, who had two earned runs, five overall, on three hits and a walk, before Feldman came in for two and a third, giving up five hits and two runs. Freshman David Aken came in for the last inning, letting up no runs, striking out one, walking another, and hitting one more to complete the trifecta. He had no runs and no hits.
The only offense the Fire could muster was a run in the top of the seventh, with a single by sophomore Kevin Beck, as he drove in freshman Justin Wiggins, who had reached on an error by the first baseman, and advanced to second. With the mercy-rule loss, the Fire again had a losing record in the Midwest Conference, and looked to avenge that in a few minutes’ time.
Game two, typically, was pitched by sophomore Colin Davis. Davis had a solid outing, though nothing to write home about, as he went three and a third, allowing six hits, including a two-run homer in the second, and three earned runs, though another crossed unearned in the third on a series of errors. Knox allowed four errors during the game.
“They had some good swings on him,” Isaacson said. “He made some quality pitches and some bad things happened. I wasn’t disappointed in Colin at all.”
After Davis came out in the fourth, McNeil took the hill to give the Fire their best chance at winning. In five and two thirds, he allowed only three hits, making five whiff, and plunking one. This was the shot the Knox offense needed, as they struck with three runs in the last three innings to take the lead. Malone again led the offense, going 1-for-5 with two RBIs, while Petik followed suit going 1-for-4 with an RBI. Nicholson and senior John Curtin each had two hits, with Curtin getting the go-ahead RBI in the eighth after freshman David Jewell tied the game with a ringing double in the left-center gap.
Saturday is the first of two meetings Knox will have with their rivals, the Monmouth Fighting Scots. After having incredible success against the Scots a year ago, winning five of six, including wins in both the South Division playoff and MWC Tournament, the Fire hope to continue that success and parlay it into a meteoric rise in the standings. Compounding the problem is the turnover the Scots have experienced throughout their club.
“We’ve got to get familiar with [Monmouth] pretty fast,” Isaacson said. “Their ace, Robbie Hinkle, I coached in Galesburg Legion ball, very aware of what he can do and what he has done. He’s got an upper level fastball, a very, very good curveball, and we’re going to have to get runners on base against him. He’s been dominant so far in the league.”
The Scots sit atop the division at 4-0, which gives Knox a good chance to tie them up, thus forcing a good battle to the end of the season. Taking one of two from them will cause some shakeup either way, and as Isaacson sees it, a 7-5 or 8-4 record will be needed for any team to see the postseason. The doubleheader starts at 12 p.m., with the second game following shortly after the conclusion of the first.
Knox also hosts Robert Morris College today at 3 p.m., and Washington University in a makeup double bill at home on Sunday at 1 p.m., with the second game following right after.