A critical doubleheader against the MWC Southern Division bottom dwellers, the Illinois College Blue Boys, is one-stepping stone that Knox has to take in its quest for a repeat.
The Blue Boys came to Galesburg searching for their first conference win while the Fire were in need of some wins and some luck to get a precious berth in the MWC Tournament. A couple of squeakers and some late heroics by men in white hats later, the Fire (8-15, 6-4) came away with a sweep of IC (9-18, 0-10), 6-5 and 2-1.
Senior Sam Almohandis, just days off a dazzling performance against Monmouth, got the start again, and started off right where he had left. Through six innings he kept the IC bats in check, allowing only two earned runs while striking out three. Some bad bounces and tricky calls by the umpires gave the Blue Boys five runs, however, and they entered the ninth leading 5-4.
Knox’s offense, considered a weakness coming into the season, did what it had to do to keep the Fire’s hopes alive this time. Senior Adam Estergard let loose with the aluminum in the eighth, nearly denting a school van parked beyond the outfield wall, and pulling the Fire within one at 5-4. Then, with the game on the line, senior Kevin Malone, leading the team in almost every offensive category save home runs, finally got his, nailing a tree over the outfield fence with a line drive that drove home junior Joey Graeff, and won the game on a walk-off homer, the first of the Fire’s season. Malone would finish the game 4-for-4 with two RBIs and two stolen bases, as he did all he could to spark the win. Estergard was 2-for-4 with a double and the dinger, driving in one.
Knox totaled ten hits on the day, with freshman David Jewell driving in the first two runs on 1-for-4 hitting, and junior George Nicholson was 1-for-3 with a double and an RBI.
“We’re getting better approaches at the plate,” Coach Jami Isaacson said. “We got off our front foot, we’re letting the ball get deeper, letting the ball travel, picking the ball up at the plate rather than being on our front foot. With some of the maturity we have, we figured it would start happening, and it happened at a good time.”
In the nightcap, sophomore Jordan Ball had his first start in more than two weeks, and after a previously bad outing, he came back and flashed the overpowering stuff that nabbed Knox a conference title a year ago. Ball was in there for seven innings, striking out four with five hits, and only one earned run.
“A lot of work in the bullpen,” Isaacson said. “In the situation we’re in where we have to play (Illinois College) four times in four days, Jordan was going to have a start, and we wanted to make him comfortable, feeling at home. I thought Jordan did a nice job.”
It was a pitchers duel through eight innings, with freshman Dexter Brown driving in the run that would keep Knox in the game, and senior Kevin Malone coming through again with an RBI single in the eighth to pull the Fire ahead.
The Prairie Fire defense continually flashed the leather, as Brown made a couple of warning-track catches, Estergard bare-handed one or two for outs, and sophomore shortstop Sam Magnuson was particularly sterling in the field, making play after play in the hole, including throwing someone out while on his back.
“Sam’s always been a ‘Web Gem’ kind of guy,” Isaacson said. “What he’s doing now, he’s making the routine play on a consistent basis and that’s why he’s in the lineup. He’s allowing our pitchers to make quality pitches, and he’ll make the out at first base.”
Junior Spencer McNeil came in to relieve in both games, pitching four and one-third scoreless innings on the day, and earning both wins by virtue of the comebacks by the Fire. His record stands at 5-2.
“You can’t say enough about Spencer McNeil,” Isaacson said. “He’s been lights-out.”
The Fire take a trip to Beloit to face the Buccaneers in a non-conference threatening series on Thursday, before going down to Jacksonville to finish out the series against IC. Isaacson anticipates the Beloit series is one that can hone the edge his team has already gained.
“We’re going to go up and take a look at Beloit, see what they’re all about,” he said. “We’re going to get some extra swings for some kids that haven’t had them for a while, Adam Mize, Jonathan Fletcher, David Jewell will get a day behind the plate, and we’ll go up there and go after them.”