The Prairie Fire baseball team had two doubleheaders this weekend; a trip to Southern Division opponent Grinnell College on Saturday, then hosting the powerhouse St. Norbert Green Knights on Sunday.
Saturday produced a mixed result, as the Fire split with the Pioneers, losing the first game 2-3, then taking the second half of the bill, 3-2 for Knox.
Freshman Jordan Ball started the first game, going for six innings, giving up three runs on six hits with five strikeouts. Grinnell scored in the first on some small ball work, as second-baseman Robbie Unsell singled, then stole both second and third. Unsell was driven in by third-baseman Daniel Clark’s single. Ball then picked Clark off at first, ending the inning.
Unsell scored for Grinnell again in the third inning, again slapping a single, then stealing around the diamond, before scoring off a groundout to shortstop by first-baseman, Brett Maloney. Ball struck out the final batter of the inning to end it.
Knox answered with runs in the fourth and fifth, with RBI singles by senior Luke Hunter and junior Adam Estergard respectively. Grinnell got an easy one in the bottom of the fifth, as the bases were loaded by a single, a double, and a walk, and Maloney grounded into a fielders choice at third, bringing catcher, Jim Malewitz home, as Knox got the out at third. Knox was unable to answer back, though Ball and reliever Sammy Almohandis stymied the Pioneers, the Fire bats went cold, sealing the deal at 3-2 in Grinnell’s favor.
Freshman Colin Davis pitched masterfully the second game, allowing two runs, one earned, on six hits in seven innings. Starting catcher junior Nate Ayers, was ejected from the game in an extremely close, controversial call at first, and freshman Bob Dempster came in to take his place. After Grinnell grabbed the lead early off a RBI double by DH Paden Roder, Knox was able to pull ahead after senior Greg Leibach walked, and senior Paul Bennett knocked in a homer. Bennett is in the top three of the team in batting average, hitting .369 with three dingers.
The middle third of the game was empty of scoring, though Grinnell managed three hits in the three innings, and Knox whacked a single in the fourth. The seventh proved to be the end of the line for Davis, as he allowed a run on a double by Prouty, who was driven home on two sacrifice hits by Unsell and Chad Tabuki, tying up the game at two.
In the top of the ninth, the Fire came through in a big way, as Estergard walked, then pushed to second on a sacrifice hit by Leibach, and then scored on an RBI single by Hunter. Junior Sammy Almohandis, who came in for setup man sophomore Spencer McNeil in the ninth, shut down the bats of Grinnell with a groundout to short, a K, and a fly out to left, ending the game at 3-2, netting Knox its first conference win.
“At this point, our destiny is in our hands,” said Coach Isaacson, “We have eight division home games now, and with a shot to take first, depending on Illinois College. We had a chance to sweep, we split, we just need to put it all together.”
“We played well against a small ball hitting team,” said senior Paul Bennett. “Our pitchers kept us in it, and we got what we needed to get a win.”
Sunday proved to be another story altogether, as Knox faced the frontrunners of the Northern Division of the MWC, the Green Knights of St. Norbert. With the two young pitching phenoms, Ball and Davis, unable to pitch, Coach Isaacson went to another young pitcher, freshman Justin Cutter, in the first game, and veteran arm sophomore Tyler Hopfauf in the second.
Cutter had a rough day, facing a talented lineup, as he went three innings, letting up seven runs on nine hits, before being relieved by sophomore Aaron Juarez, who lasted three, giving five runs on six hits, before sophomore Dan Feldman came out of the bullpen for the final inning, giving up two runs on two hits.
The Fire bats were silent, as they got only three hits; singles by Hopfauf and Leibach, and a double by Bennett. The final score was 14-0. Norbert’s All-American Adam Frost was held somewhat quiet, going only 1-4, though he did knock in two runs. Jared Yost went 3-4 with two RBIs, and Cory Fuller went 3-4 with one RBI. It all ended with the score St. Norbert 14, Knox 0.
Game two proved to be much the same for Knox. Though some runs crossed the plate for the Fire, the Knights struck harder, if anything. Hopfauf took the hill to begin the game and lasted five innings, giving up eight hits with ten runs crossing the plate. He was relieved by Feldman, who lasted only two-thirds of an inning, giving up three runs on one hit, and McNeil came in for the last out of the inning, letting up another three runs.
Almohandis held the Norbert bats in check for the last inning, holding them at 13. Knox’s bats lit up somewhat, as Bennett hit one into a truck over the left field fence, driving in two runs in the fourth, and junior John Curtin drove in junior Kevin Malone in the fifth, after sophomore Joey Graeff scored on a past ball. Graeff also stole second in that inning.
Some very good defense was shown in the second game as sophomore Sam Magnuson, starting in his first game since the Arizona trip, settled in at short, making a throw out at home in the fifth, and a great over the shoulder catch in the top of the sixth. Estergard, at third, fielded a hard shot with aplomb, though it ended in a bad throw to first. Frost, the All-American, went 3-4 in the second game, with a dinger and two doubles, driving in five runs. The final score was St. Norbert 16, Knox 4.
“Norbert taught us a lot,” said Bennett. “We got some stuff from them, how they do some things, so now we have something on them the next time we play. They’re the team to beat, and we want to play them again. We need to put together offense and defense all in one game. Our pitching can keep us in it, but we have to be efficient, at the plate and in the field, not relying on homers to score. It sucks to lose, and it makes us motivated to really knock Grinnell and all the others around. Once our bats wake up, it’ll be a different story.”