In their final tuneup before Midwest Conference play, the men’s baseball team fell 11-6 to Illinois Wesleyan. The loss for the Prairie Fire is perhaps unsurprising, given that the Titans took down Knox by a combined score of 21-5 over their last two meetings, but is still disappointing given that the Prairie Fire had built some momentum following a doubleheader victory over Lawrence University.
“We really struggled with getting behind in the count as a pitching staff, which led to a lot of leadoff walks,” said junior Alec Jordan. “But the good news is that we came back from deficits, tying the game up again and again. Shows a lot of character to be able to fight back in the face of adversity.”
The Prairie Fire began to unravel following an uncharacteristically poor performance from senior Marty Salazar, who gave up four runs on three hits and two walks in just a third of an inning of work. Prior to this outing, Salazar had pitched his way to a 0.90 ERA, the best on staff, and had the only save of the season.
“I still have the same confidence in Marty that I had before, and I hope that’s true for the rest of the team,” said junior Drake Sykes. “I know who he is as a player and a person. He is going to work harder every day so that sort of outing doesn’t happen again.”
Junior Alex Bell also had a difficult outing, giving up four hits and a trio of runs in an inning of work. At that point, Knox trailed 11-6 and could not pull off a late inning comeback. Bell did, however, thrive at the plate, going three for four with four RBIs. Bell has the second best average on the team, hitting just shy of .400, and is also second on the team with 15 RBIs.
Another unquestioned team leader for the Prairie Fire is Sykes, who is hitting an eye-popping .500 despite his 0-for-5 outing against Illinois Wesleyan. Sykes has taken on a leadership role on a team and his performance has responded accordingly: Sykes gets on base over 60 percent of his plate appearances, is slugging .872, nearly 200 points higher than the team’s second-best, and he has proven himself to be a leader off the field as well.
“Having Drake and Alex behind you provides a huge confidence boost as a pitcher,” said Jordan. “When you see them at the plate, you know they’re going to make something happen.”
If there’s one thing the Prairie Fire can glean from the loss to the Titans, it’s the fact that they hit well in the clutch: They were five for 13 with two outs, and with runners in scoring position they were three for seven. More than anything, however, the game served as a tune-up for conference play, which is where games really start to matter.
“Illinois Wesleyan really provided a great test for us,” said Jordan. “They are up there in terms of competitiveness with the best teams in our conference. It shows us how good teams play with their backs against the wall, and it teaches us to have the right mentality knowing that quality teams will play every aspect of the game well.”
The Prairie Fire open conference games against Grinnell, who have proved difficult to handle: The Pioneers have taken down Knox in each of their last eight meetings. Grinnell will not be coming into the season short on motivation, nor will they be short on talent.
The defending MWC South champions are bringing back plenty of talent, including four all-conference players and the South Division Player of the Year Matt Hammond. As such, they will provide a sizable challenge for the Prairie Fire.
Grinnell has always featured a dominant pitching staff, and this year is no exception: Their top two starters feature sub-2.00 ERAs, and Knox will likely see at least one of the two. Ultimately, however, this season is about Knox, and not about any other team.
“The game against Wesleyan gave me a lot of confidence in this team,” said Sykes. “We have a solid lineup, and a lot of younger guys are really showing up to play. We’re all confident; now it’s just a waiting game to see how we can execute.”