Knox baseball has repeatedly proven one thing this year: they know how to put runs on the board. That, however, did not change the result Saturday, April 7, in a doubleheader against perennial Midwest Conference South Division favorite Grinnell College.
Despite its prolific offensive output–Knox was averaging six runs per contest heading into the game–the Prairie Fire (6-11, 1-2) has not seen the results in the win-loss column, as defensive woes and pitching troubles have encumbered Knox’s 2012 campaign thus far.
Nevertheless, the Fire, buoyed by its formidable lineup, was confident heading into Saturday’s division showdown against the Pioneers since it was sophomore hurler Peter Marquardt’s turn in the rotation. Marquardt evidenced why he’s the ace of the Knox staff by retiring Grinnell’s first two hitters: centerfielder Drew Davis and shortstop Michael Goldfien. Marquardt didn’t fare so well against preseason all-American catcher Mike Nodzenski who doubled off the sophomore lefty. Grinnell’s attack in the top frame of the first inning continued thanks to excellent two-out hitting. Uncharacteristic wildness displayed by Marquardt, who walked three Grinnell batters and threw three wild pitches, contributed to the nightmarish first inning.
After facing twelve hitters and squandering nine runs, Marquardt retired the thirteenth hitter of the inning, Grinnell clean-up hitter Matt Skelly, and stranded Nodzenski who collected his second hit of the inning with an RBI single.
After a one-two-three first inning for Grinnell starter Ben Pope, Marquardt received the hook in the top of the second after walking Pioneer first baseman Ronnie Gray. In relief of Marquardt, junior Ryan Stoens cooled the torrid Grinnell offensive attack, yielding three earned runs over three innings. Freshman Andrew Sparrow did not fare as kindly against the Pioneer attack, allowing three earned runs in 1.1 innings of work. Even shutdown reliever White struggled to fully contain the Pioneers, allowing his first two earned runs of 2012 to cross the plate during his 0.2 innings on the bump. Making his second appearance on the mound, junior Douglas Lillibridge was knocked around by Grinnell for three runs in 0.1 innings’ worth of work. Junior Nikko Juarez stopped the bleeding by earning two outs and not allowing any more Pioneers to touch home.
While Knox hurlers struggled to contain Grinnell’s hitters during the entirety of game one, the Fire offense awoke from its first-inning slumber to bombard the Pioneers with a barrage of hits during the second frame. Junior second baseman Mike Schroeder plated Hoffman, who reached via a single, with a fly-out to centerfield to begin a quasi-rally in the second’s bottom half. Lillibridge, who began the game as the Fire’s designated hitter, slugged a single that scored junior third baseman Kyle Walenga. Sophomore leftfielder Erik Smoy pared the Knox deficit to seven runs by driving in junior rightfielder Matt Lee.
The Knox rally continued in the third and fourth innings, respectively, and put the score at 13-8 following four innings of play. The Pioneer pitchers succeeding departed starter Pope, who Knox knocked around for eight runs and eleven hits, quelled the Fire offense, providing Grinnell with 3.1 innings of scoreless relief. The Knox power outage following the fourth inning, joined to the Fire’s pitching woes, which contributed to a 21-8 mercy rule-shortened defeat.
Knox and Grinnell exchanged a run during the initial frame of game two. Knox’s game two starter, sophomore Dustin Armstrong, escaped a jam in the second inning and stranded Pioneer second baseman J.R. Downick at second by striking out Grinnell third baseman Kainoa Inafaku. During the bottom half of the inning, senior catcher David Jewell doubled to spur the Knox offense. An error by Inafaku on a ball hit by Smoy culminated in a run for Knox and put the sophomore leftfielder in scoring position. Armstrong was tagged for four runs in the fourth inning’s top half. During the inning’s bottom half, Walenga was hit by a pitch from Grinnell sophomore Will Pahos. A single from Lee and, then, a single from Jewell after Pahos retired Schroder loaded the bases and set the table for Smoy. The leftfielder, who attributed his slow start in 2012 after a stellar first season to a “sophomore slump,” hit a bases-clearing triple that provided the Fire with a 6-5 lead. After Grinnell regained the lead thanks to a three-run sixth inning, Knox went down one-two-three.
In the home half of the seventh, White’s first round-tripper of 2012 narrowed the Grinnell advantage to a sole run. During the bottom of the eighth, Knox knotted the score at eight all due to a double slugged by Smoy. The sophomore was superb at the plate, falling just a dinger shy of the cycle with a 3-4, 4-RBI performance. The sophomore who surmounted his early season struggles by coming to practice with a “clear mindset” and a dedicated focus upon “working on [his] cut” and becoming “better all-around” has achieved his aspiration, as evidenced by his .283 average and flawless conversion on all thirty chances he has received as a corner outfielder.
During the second contest, Knox’s first three hitters—Smoy, sophomore designated hitter Michael O’Connell, and White—drove in all of Knox’s runs, save for the unearned run resulting from the Inafaku error that plated Jewell who enjoyed an impressive two-hit day. Nevertheless, Smoy believed that “everyone contributed” in game two. He lauded his teammates’ focus as the catalyst responsible for Knox’s comeback during the second division contest following the first game shellacking the Fire took.
“We had one bad inning that led to that (scoring) explosion in (game one). [In game two] everyone came with focus. Everyone contributed,” said the sophomore leadoff man.
Prior to the commencement of the ninth inning, the nightcap was suspended due to darkness. Presumably, the game will be resumed during Knox’s visit to Grinnell scheduled for May 6, though the game’s conclusion has yet to been definitively scheduled.
Fire lose to Illinois Wesleyan
Knox fell to Illinois Wesleyan 9-3 Tuesday, April 10 under the lights at Galesburg High’s Sundberg Field. The Fire overcame a big first inning by the Titans, tying the game 3-3 on a double by junior Caleb Weaver. Statistical leaders for Knox included Lee, who finished 2-for-4 with one RBI, and Schroeder, who had two hits in three at-bats. The Titans won the 2010 Division III Baseball Championship.
Knox will take on Robert Morris College in Springfield, IL on April 14 at 12:00 p.m.