Maroons double Eagles, back at .500

By Joe Katz

The Eagles knew that they would need tremendous pitching to cool off the Maroons. Yet even one of the Midwest’s best couldn’t compete in this arms race.

The U of C’s Big Three combined to give up just five hits in 14 innings as baseball (14-14) swept Benedictine (15-20) 5-3, 5-0 at Lisle on Saturday. The pair of wins extended the team’s winning streak to eight games, lifting the team to a .500 record for the first time since March 25. The two games were also the first ever at the Benedictine University Sports Complex.

Behind the pitching of fourth-years Matt Altomare (3-3, 6.48) and Dan Harrington (2-3, 6.75) in the first game and third-year Dan Yeksigian (6-3, 3.55) in the nightcap, the team was able to overcome a strong Eagles staff, led by 2004 All-Region pick fourth-year Pat Murphy. Altomare grabbed the win in the first game, giving up just two runs in four innings before yielding to Harrington, who gave up one unearned run in three innings to record his first save. Yeksigian one-upped his staff mates with another complete-game victory, allowing only one hit and three walks over the shutout as he went the distance for the fifth time in seven starts.

“Our pitching has been outstanding over the past couple of weeks, better than we even thought it would be,” head coach Brian Baldea said. “With our defense at least solid, we’re winning games the way we thought we would, and the way we did on Saturday.”

Altomare worked with no parachute early in the first showdown against Murphy, forcing a strikeout and a pop out to strand a runner on third in the bottom of the second to keep the game scoreless. The offense gave him something to work with in the next frame, as fourth-year shortstop Steve Ruh tripled home second-year second baseman Tony Zitek with two outs.

In the top of the fourth, the Maroons made back-to-back singles to lead off the inning count with some small-ball success. Zitek’s bases loaded bunt pushed fourth-year catcher Chris Kocinski across the plate as the catcher dropped the pitcher’s throw at home. Fourth-year third baseman T.J. Rajcevich’s bunt down the third-base line singled home both first-year right fielder Mike Serio and fourth-year center fielder Frank Brown. Zitek then scored as fourth-year Benedictine catcher Mike Headtke’s throw sailed into center on Rajcevich’s successful stolen base.

“There were a lot of good pitchers on both sides on Saturday, and we knew there were not going to be a lot of runs scored,” Baldea said. “We squeezed home a couple of runs. That’s the type of team this squad has to be.”

Altomare ran into some trouble in the bottom of the inning, giving up two, but stranded a pair of Eagles with a fly out to Zitek to shut the door. Harrington then put things away, going 1-2-3 in the fifth and seventh and allowing one run on a passed ball in the sixth.

In the second game, the Maroons got all they needed in their first at-bats. After back-to-back pop-ups to open the game, Ruh worked a walk and promptly stole his eighth base of the spring. Fourth-year left fielder Mike Costello made it count, singling his classmate in for the 1-0 lead.

With the same score in the sixth, Brown crushed his team-leading third homer of the season with Costello and fourth-year first baseman Justin Garrett on to finally give the team some insurance. He then singled home Ruh with two down in the seventh for a four-RBI day, but it was just gravy with Yeksigian on the mound. The starter won his fifth straight decision and his third in seven days, striking out four to continue his recent tear. He never faced more than four batters in an inning, helping the Maroons continue to roll.

“Winning always breeds confidence,” Garrett said. “We knew that we were capable of playing like this. It was just a matter of living up to our potential.”

“Our guys have the feeling every time we go out there now that they have the chance for success. Knowing that gives us a boost,” Baldea said.

The team had struggled mightily early in the season, at one point losing eight straight and bottoming out at 4-11 on April 8. Since then, they have played at a .769 clip, not losing since dropping a doubleheader against Rockford April 17. The improvement and versatility of the pitching staff have been key to this turnaround, as both Yeksigian and Harrington have come out of the bullpen to earn two wins and a save during the win streak. The two have combined with Altomare to earn seven wins over Chicago’s last eight, with third-year pitcher Brian Olson grabbing the last.

“As our primary starters, they’re gonna pitch whenever they’re ready. Especially with the two seniors, it’s their last season, and when they say they can go, they’ll go,” Baldea said. “They can pitch in short stints during the week and be ready to pitch over the weekend. There’s no set formula for pitchers. Everyone’s different.”

On offense, the Maroons have benefited from a number of big innings, often keyed by Costello, who has been locked in at the plate over recent weeks. The fourth-year has gone 14-for-29 over the streak with 10 RBI. He has only been held hitless twice, and in one of those games worked three walks and scored two runs.

“This is exactly what we expected from him, to be a true middle of the lineup hitter. We expected this to be his year, after playing behind some good guys, and being injured last year,” Baldea said. “Now, we’re seeing results.”

Ruh has also been a major contributor, now with hits in 15 straight games. Brown, providing some power of late, has a nine-game hitting streak, as improvements continue up and down the lineup.

“For two weeks, we have worked for every win we have gotten. We have been doing the little things correctly. Everyone in our lineup has come up big at some point or another,” Garrett said.

Costello, the team’s new cleanup hitter, seems to consistently be in the thick of things when the Maroons post crooked numbers on the board, which has been happening far more frequently. After posting 21 multi-run innings in the first 20 games, Chicago has had 23 over their last eight showdowns. Coaches have tied this to getting more leadoff runners on and a big uptick in two-out hits.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are getting it done with two outs now. We weren’t doing that at all earlier in the season, we’d walk away from a lot of those with zero scored,” Baldea said. “Now we’re getting those hits, and keeping the innings going. Frankly, we’re playing better in all areas of the game.”

The team travels to Elmhurst Wednesday for an afternoon doubleheader. Starters are still to be determined as of press time.

“Being at .500 with seven games left doesn’t make our season a success no matter how much we were struggling early on. We are going to take it one game a time and see how many we can win over the next two weeks,” Garrett said.