Baseball safe at home with pair of wins

By Joe Katz

They may not be in midseason form. But with a solid defense, moments of ace pitching, and flashes of hitting power in their first homestand, baseball proved itself capable of pulling out a few victories.

Powered bursts of timely hitting, the Maroons (4–9) got the win in two of their first three showdowns at J. Kyle. Fourth-year righty Dan Yeksigian (3–0, 4.68) faltered in the ninth but was golden through his first eight frames as Chicago blasted North Central (4–11) 10–6 in its home opener Friday. While third-year righty/first baseman Dan Cozzi (0–2, 6.30) wasn’t up to standard as the bats went quiet in a 7–3 loss to Edgewood (15–6) Sunday, third-year shortstop Tony Zitek helped the home team strike back in the back end of the double header with a bases-loaded walk-off single to clinch the 7–6 win. Second-year lefty/outfielder Nate Ginsberg (1–1, 3.43) earned the decision for the Maroons.

After struggling to get themselves going over the first half of their spring break trip, Chicago seems to have taken a step in the right direction at the plate in recent games. After plating just 12 men over their first five contests, the squad has averaged 7.75 runs per game in four games since their return from Arizona. Players like first-year catcher/first baseman Scott Hofer (.472) and third-year infielder John Thomas (.341) have made their presence felt in a big way during the resurgence. Moreover, hits have been coming in bunches and at key moments of games much more often in recent bouts. At the same time, the Maroons are not yet playing as coaches had hoped for in preseason.

“We’ve gotten two-outs hits and hits with runners in scoring position that we weren’t getting on the first half of the Arizona trip, leading to a little more offensive production,” head coach Brian Baldea said. “But I still don’t think we’ve improved significantly. We’ve scored more runs, but we have still not swung the bats as well as I think we can and will.”

Chicago has certainly shown flashes of their potential when given extra opportunities. They took control of Friday’s battle with the Cardinal in a hurry by taking advantage of some critical North Central miscues. After a leadoff double from Thomas, fourth-year designated hitter Ryan Denton reached on an error by second-year third baseman Will Armistead. After a Hofer walk and a popup by Cozzi, second-year shortstop Ryan Morrison mishandled third-year third baseman Allen Cooper’s grounder and was forced to go to first with his throw, allowing Thomas and Denton to score.

Second-year righty Michael Alvarado (0–1) didn’t react well, surrendering RBI hits to second-year outfielder Mike Serio, Ginsberg, and first-year outfielder Travis Blane before getting out of the inning. His troubles weren’t over yet, as a pair of Armistead errors in the fourth allowed Thomas to turn a fielder’s choice into a run from first and gave Hofer the opportunity to drive home Denton with a two-out triple.

“Our success has come from a lot of different people hitting well, and everyone building off that momentum,” Cozzi said. “Since coming back from Arizona, guys like John Thomas, [fourth-year second baseman] Matt Assad, Allen Cooper, and Tony Zitek have been getting on base all the time, and I think the entire lineup has benefited from that.”

The six-run lead was commanding with Yeksigian’s performance. The Maroons ace was dominant through the bulk of the afternoon, striking out eight Cardinals and holding them to two runs, one earned, on four hits through the first eight frames. Pitching on fumes in the ninth, Yeksigian allowed five men to reach with two outs. Fourth-year catcher Geoff Pignatiello did most of the damage with a three-run, bases-clearing double. Yeksigian managed to force a grounder from Alvarado to end the game.

“We milked him a little bit too much. We asked Danny to go all the way with a big lead and a lot of upcoming games. He responded well and did that for us, but that was a lot to ask of him,” Baldea said.

Cozzi would have done well to emulate his teammate’s performance two days later. It was not to be, as he struggled with his location throughout the afternoon and failed to record a single 1-2-3 inning. With the game knotted at two entering the fourth, Cozzi gave up a single and a double to start the inning and allowed a two-run single to first-year catcher Matt Werner as part of a four-run frame for the Eagles. He gamely battled through the shortened seven-inning game, but ended up yielding seven runs, six earned on 12 hits.

“I don’t think it was one of Dan’s better outings, and I think Dan would be the first one to tell you that,” Baldea said.

“It was a very frustrating game for me personally because I felt like I had decent control, which often eludes me,” Cozzi said. “I tried to attack the first hitter of every inning with a lot of strikes to minimize the number of walks, but they responded by getting hits off me and beginning some big innings. Even when I’d throw my best pitch in the location I wanted, they’d find some way to reach base.”

He didn’t get much help from his teammates. After a two-run double from Thomas capped a three-hit second, Chicago scratched out just one more tally the rest of the way. The squad couldn’t muster up anything against a quality performance from Eagles fourth-year righty Scott von Reuden (1–0). Only 10 men reached first on the game, and 4 were stranded in scoring position. It was a clear indication that the Maroons’ hitters were not out of the woods yet.

“I think we took a lot of von Reuden’s pitches unnecessarily, pitches we might have been able to handle better than the ones we chose to offer at,” Baldea said. “We were a little tentative against him, especially early.”

The dearth of runs may have partially been the result of the absence of Hofer, who suffered a quadriceps strain and was replaced by first-year pitcher/first baseman Payton Leonhardt. He did not play in the second game, and his status for Wednesday’s doubleheader against Rockford is still up in the air.

Faced with a sweep, Zitek dramatically demonstrated Chicago’s ability to make things happen in the clutch in the bottom of the seventh in the second game. With the game tied at six, Cooper singled to open the inning and was sacrificed to second by Schmitt. After granting Olson an intentional walk and allowing a single to Assad, Eagles second-year righty reliever Bill Dictus (2–1) threw a first-pitch ball to Zitek with the bases loaded and one out. Zitek made him pay with a single through the right side as the home dugout erupted onto the field in celebration.

“After he fell behind me, I knew he would throw me a fastball because he wouldn’t want to risk walking in the winning run,” Zitek said. “That was my first walk-off hit in college.”

The game had been a back-and-forth affair all the way through, with seven lead changes in the final five innings.

Chicago started the scoring with two in the fourth on an Assad home run. The round-tripper was the first of the year for the Maroons, who had 12 balls go yard last spring. An unlikely suspect to lead his squad in long balls, Assad slugged just 0.133 a year ago and entered the contest with only two hits on the year.

Edgewood responded with three in the top of the fifth before the Maroons struck back for two of their own in the bottom of that inning. Both squads plated two men in the sixth, and with Chicago trying to nail down the win in the seventh, the Eagles scored an unearned run to set up Zitek’s heroics.

Assad (three-for-four, two RBI) and Serio (two-for-three, one run) were among the team leaders on the day, and Thomas chipped in with a critical pinch-hit RBI double in the sixth.

The team kicks off a trio of road doubleheaders Wednesday against Rockford (6–13). The streaky Regents will enter the game having lost their last four, and have struggled from the mound with a staff ERA of 5.26. Yeksigian will get the call in the opener for Chicago, with the second game starter to be determined.