The Prairie Fire just could not quite prove their dominance over Cornell College: in just two days, Knox split two doubleheaders with the Rams. Cornell was the best hitting team in the Midwest Conference with a team batting average of .355 coming into this weekend, and they proved it, defeating Knox 14-4 in the first game Saturday.
Senior Caleb Weaver opened the game on the right foot with an RBI single, but the Prairie Fire quickly gave up a trio of unearned runs on a wild pitch and an error by Weaver. The Rams scored one more that inning, and from then on, Cornell padded their lead, dashing any hopes of a comeback with a four-run fifth to give them an 11-2 lead. The game closed with a 14-4 win for the Rams.
Knox had 10 hits in the contest, led by Weaver’s three. Freshman Mitch Weissenhofer hit his first homerun of the year for Knox and totaled two of the Prairie Fire’s four runs in the game.
“You hate to say it, but I think we may have overlooked them a little bit,” senior Ryan Stoens said of the loss. “They’re new to the conference, and we just came out dead. That was a mistake made by everyone on the team, and they took advantage.”
The Prairie Fire bolted out of the gates in game two with a four-run first inning. Back-to-back singles from Weaver and junior Erik Smoy, a double by senior Kyle Walenga and a sacrifice fly by sophomore Andrew Sparrow allowed for Knox’s prolific scoring.
Smoy and senior Ryan Hoffman added a pair of insurance runs in the seventh, and junior Phil Tallman added one more in the eighth. Junior Paul Mills pitched five innings of three-run ball to get the win, and after three perfect innings from senior Gabe Ayers and junior Bryan Leslie, senior Dustin Armstrong finished off the game in the ninth. The late run he allowed (the first blemish on his ERA this year) was not enough to rally the Rams, and the game ended an 8-4 win for Knox.
In their second doubleheader on Sunday, Knox looked as if they would be able to win the first game this time: the Prairie Fire held a 6-4 lead after seven innings. Armstrong, to this point the workhorse of the bullpen, was shelled for the first time all year. He only pitched an inning and a third, but gave up eight runs after coming in with a 6-4 lead and two runners on. The Rams managed seven hits and a pair of walks to plate their eight runs off Armstrong, giving them a 14-6 win.
Weaver proved his pair of three-hit games on Saturday was no fluke: in game one, Weaver led the team with two hits and two RBIs. He added three more hits, including a homer, in the second game, leading the Prairie Fire to victory behind a complete game from Stoens. In his nine innings, Stoens gave up eight hits and no walks, striking out six.
Weaver had been in a personal slump these past few weeks, and Stoens said of Weaver’s resurgence: “It’s absolutely pivotal. He was hitting great in Florida, but when we came back, he just looked a little too anxious, which caused him to be out in front a whole lot. He looked a lot more relaxed this weekend and just focused on putting bat on ball. From that, good things happen to good hitters.”
With the game tied 1-1 in the fifth, freshman Blake Newberg hit a two-run jack, his first on the year. Not ready to quit yet, the Rams matched Newberg’s shot with one of their own, tying the game in the bottom of the fifth. Knox reclaimed the lead on a solo shot from Weaver. That was all the offense the Prairie Fire would need.
For good measure, Knox tacked on a couple of insurance runs on RBI singles from Smoy and Weaver, but Stoens needed no more support, blanking the Rams to give Knox a 6-3 victory.
Stoens has had a very up and down year thus far, with performances varying from a 12.47 ERA against Grinnell to two innings of one-hit relief against Illinois Wesleyan. This was far and away his longest appearance of the year, with his 4.1 innings against Grinnell being the next highest.
Stoens credited his improved performance to the right mindset. While his mentality of not walking anyone (he has walked a combined six batters in eight innings in his worst two showings) led to a home run on a count he would have normally been more patient in, his aggressiveness paid off the rest of the game.
The next challenge for Knox came Tuesday evening, in the form of another top-25 team: 22 ranked Augustana.
The game lasted 13 innings and ran through eight Prairie Fire arms, based on this game’s “pitch by committee” mentality. The Prairie Fire ultimately could not pull out the win, losing 3-2, and the statistic that first draws questions in the loss is the six errors committed by the Knox defense. Freshman Jeremy Gogoel, however, did not see that as the major problem in Knox’s struggles.
“Six errors is an awful lot to commit. But that’s not why we lost the ballgame,” Gogoel said. “Our pitching staff, despite those errors, only allowed three runs over 13 innings. Our defense could have made more routine plays, but they didn’t end up hurting us. The real issue was offensive production: this was our lowest run total of the year minus some Florida days. We just could
n’t produce, couldn’t execute at the plate.”
Only four Knox players managed hits over the course of the game, and of them, only Smoy and senior Matt Lee had more than one hit. Senior Michael Schroeder may have had the biggest impact for Knox when he was subbed into the game at second base in the sixth inning.
Not only did he score one of the Prairie Fire’s two runs on a fielder’s choice by Smoy, but he also helped prevent another and sent the game to extras with a phenomenal defensive play. With a runner on third base, a seemingly unreachable ground ball, which would have given Augustana a 3-2 lead in the eighth, was hit to Smoy’s right. Smoy proceeded to not only stop the ball, but also get the runner at first, leaving the Augustana runner stranded at third.
Despite Smoy’s heroics, the Prairie Fire managed just one hit in extras, getting shut down by an Augustana duo composed of Brandon Bollman and Rick Erickson. The duo pitched 5 2/3 innings total, allowing just two hits and two walks, while striking out eight.
Lee threw four solid innings in his first appearance of the year but drew the loss after allowing one run in the 13th. The Vikings’ Kurt Schmidt practically manufactured the run himself: Schmidt singled to lead off the inning, stole second and when the ball was thrown away on his attempt to steal third, scampered home to score the winning run.
Immediately after the team had finished tending to the field, head coach Jami Isaacson called the whole Prairie Fire squad to the clubhouse for a team meeting. While the talk itself may
not have had positive overtones, it carried with it a progressive message.
“It was really more of a pep talk than anything else,” Gogoel said. “We had high hopes going into Cornell this weekend and Augustana today, and Coach didn’t want us going into a tailspin from the losses.”
Knowing this weekend’s quartet of games against Monmouth will be key, Isaacson wanted his players back on track and entering the weekend with the right mindset.
“He said we needed to have a different approach at the plate. There’s a lot of anxious hitters right now, and anxious hitters don’t make good baseball players É if we go into this weekend with that approach and the pitching we’ve had, there’s no reason we can’t take Monmouth, and even teams like Augustana and Wesleyan,” Gogoel continued.
The Prairie Fire play a set of games against Monmouth in Galesburg on April 20, and then have another pair at Monmouth on April 21.