The Knox College baseball team proved Saturday what so many have doubted this season—that it can win against the top teams in the Midwest Conference.
The Prairie Fire (7-17, 2-6 MWC) defeated Monmouth College in back-to-back games for its first winning streak since March 21, when they beat Plymouth State University (NH) 7-3.
Before falling to Knox, the Scots (16-9, 5-3 MWC) trailed first place Grinnell College by just one game in the Midwest Conference’s South Division, and were second only to Beloit College for the best overall record in the conference.
The victories allow the Fire to fight another day, staving off what would have meant an all but certain elimination from the MWC Tournament.
“These wins prove that hard work pays off,” said sophomore catcher Kyle Walenga, who finished the day with a combined three runs and three RBIs. “We came into practice this week to get better each day, and [I think] we did just that.”
In the first half of the double-header, Knox won 7-6. Senior Colin Davis gave up six earned runs through 6 2/3 innings, though he suffered some tough luck that ultimately exaggerated his final line. Davis was followed in relief by freshman Bryan Leslie, who retired the only hitter he faced, and senior Jordan Ball, who gave up zero earned runs in two innings to pick up the win.
Knox trailed by as much as four runs, but was able to complete a furious comeback after Monmouth pitcher Lukas Skull blew the save opportunity in the bottom of the ninth inning. Junior Kyle Grimes scored the winning run after Skull gave up a bases-loaded walk to junior David Jewell.
“I was just looking for a pitch I could hit out of the infield to get that winning run in,” Jewell said, an infielder, who finished the day with a combined two hits and three RBIs. “He didn’t throw anything near the zone, which made my job a lot easier.”
The Fire then went on to win the second game 14-4, in their best offensive game of the year. Only once in their previous six games had Knox scored more than one run leading up to their final meeting with Monmouth.
The strong offensive output was led by freshman outfielder Erik Smoy, who finished the game with three runs and four RBI’s. Smoy has 19 hits and a homerun, while batting .292 on the year.
“Throughout the week the whole team worked on improving our approach at the plate and put everything together,” said Smoy, who has started all 20 games in which he’s appeared. “We don’t expect to get 14 runs every game, but when you do it’s a good feeling.”
On the mound, Knox was led by a strong outing from freshman pitcher Paul Mills, who gave up zero earned runs and five hits in six innings, improving to 1-2 on the year.
“Getting my first collegiate win was really satisfying, especially since it was against Monmouth,” said Mills, who has a 2.95 E.R.A. in his last three starts. “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. These wins showed what type of baseball we’re capable of playing and that confidence is going to be huge going down the stretch.”
Other notable performances came from sophomore designated hitter Ryan Hoffman, who finished the game with two hits and three RBIs, and freshman shortstop Phil Tallman, who scored two runs in three at-bats.
Knox hopes to find the kind of late season success enjoyed by the 2008 squad, who won Knox’s first outright conference title since 1986, and qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament after finishing 15-23. Six seniors remain from that team.
“If we come out and play ball like we can, we’ll surprise a lot of teams,” Jewell said. “We need to take this momentum into the next two weekends, finish strong and see if we can’t get ourselves in a position to be playing for the conference championship.”
Knox faces off against Illinois College for a doubleheader in Jacksonville, Ill. on Saturday. Game one begins at noon.