May 9, 2006

Baseball stays on course with squeakers at home

As baseball tries to send its fourth-years out on the right note, one of the team’s young guns provided a hint of just how bright the future is for this program.

After lacing a walk-off double to right to complete a six-run comeback in the first game, first-year righty Kyle Schmitt (1–2, 3.05) went the distance in the second for his first career victory as the Maroons (17–16) swept Benedictine (19–19–1) 7–6, 6–2 at J. Kyle Saturday. Chicago went on to split a pair against Concordia (20–19) 3–6, 6–5 Sunday to wrap up their home slate and keep themselves in the running for their third 20-win season in four years.

Third-year righty/first baseman Dan Cozzi (4–2, 3.53) was the main beneficiary of the comeback in Saturday’s opener, earning the win with a complete game performance, while second-year left-handed starter Nate Ginsberg (4–3, 4.71) survived a Cougars charge late in Sunday’s capper. Fourth-year ace Dan Yeksigian (7–3, 4.13) was digging towards a no-hitter in the front end Monday before becoming unglued to allow six runs over the last three frames.

With their current number-one starter proving less than perfect, the multitalented Schmitt allowed the Maroons to make the weekend a memorable one. The return-from-the-dead win was the largest rally in recent memory for Chicago baseball.

“When I ran in towards the dugout they swarmed me, and in all the excitement my hat came off and I ended up with [second-year infielder] Jordan Onulak’s hat on my head,” Schmitt said. “I’ve never had a day like Saturday before.”

His performance provided a fitting ending to a Hollywood-esque day for the home game against the Eagles. Benedictine torched Cozzi for four runs in the second inning of game one as the junior continued to struggle with his pitch location. He was hurt by an error at third in that frame, and would be forced to work for extra outs again, giving up two in the third to dig his squad a deeper hole.

First-year catcher Tommy Gonzalez came around after reaching on a lead-off error at short in the bottom of the third, but they could muster no more despite loading the bases. Cozzi found his game to retire 12 of the last 13 he faced, but the Maroons still trailed 6–1 entering the bottom of the seventh.

With their back against the wall, it all came together for Chicago. The Maroons worked three straight walks to open the inning, pushing across one run on a sacrifice fly from first-year catcher/first baseman Scott Hofer. Sandwiching a strikeout from fourth-year third baseman Assad between a walk and a pair of RBI singles, the home team put men at the corners with two down and a one-run deficit still staring them in the face. Enter Schmitt.

“When I heard that I was going in to pinch hit, the adrenaline was definitely pumping. I love pinch-hitting late in close games,” Schmitt said. “He threw me all fastballs the entire at-bat. He finally left one over the middle of the plate about letter high and I jumped on it.

“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was going deep into the right-center gap, and I juststopped on second and watched the relay come in as Coop was going home. It was ecstasy,” he said, referring to third-year shortstop Allen Cooper.

The hapless reliever Gary Lindenmulder (1–2) took the loss, giving up the last three runs on three hits and a walk while recording only two outs. Cozzi gave up six runs, three earned on four hits and five walks with seven punch-outs, while third-year shortstop Cooper paced the offensive with a two-for-four, two RBI performance.

Perhaps still feeling the rush, Schmitt gave up a pair on two walks and a double in the first of the back end game. He then settled in to shut down the Eagles on three hits and five free passes the rest of the way. In the meantime, the Maroons tied things up in the bottom of the first as fourth-year designated hitter Ryan Denton bopped a two-out, two-run single to right against starter George Shimko (2–5) and worked him for two more in the second and another insurance run keyed by a Cozzi (two-for-three, two runs) double in the fourth.

Shimko gave up five earned runs total on seven hits and two walks over four innings before giving way to reliever Adam Ulen, who was worked for an RBI sac fly by third-year third baseman/pinch runner John Thomas in the sixth to provide the final margin.

It was difficult to imagine how the follow-up doubleheader could possibly match Saturday’s twin bill for excitement. But Yeksigian demonstrated again that anything is possible when Chicago’s ace is on the mound. Yeksigian was gunning for legend status with not a hit allowed through five and a third innings despite putting a run on the board on two walks and a pair of well-placed grounders in the fifth. He had previously tossed a no-no last May 14 against Rose–Hulman.

A repeat performance was not in the cards, as the control problems that dogged Chicago pitchers all weekend finally claimed a victim. Yeksigian gave up a single to third-year first baseman Greg Grabowski with one down in the sixth, and subsequently seemed to come apart. Issuing two wild pitches in the next at- bat before getting the strikeout, he went on to surrender two runs in the inning. He had little more to offer in the seventh, allowing three men to come home on two hits, two hit-by-pitches, a wild pitch, an intentional walk, and his own error. After putting three on the board in the third, the home offense was whitewashed the rest of the way.

It was an inauspicious home finale for a great pitcher, as he posted a final line of six runs, four earned with seven walks to go with only three hits, two of which could have been scored as errors. His 10 strikeouts over the full seven innings give him 191 for his career, putting him just four behind Ed Ruder (A.B. ’88) on the modern era list. His counterpart second-year starter Carl Petersen (6–1) threw a complete game in his own right, giving up three runs, all earned on seven hits and three walks.

“I don’t think Danny ran out of gas. I’m not sure what happened, and I’m not sure Danny knows what happened,” Baldea said. “He had as much velocity with him as I’ve seen, and all of a sudden we didn’t make a play or two and he lost his ability to throw strikes.”

After three straight roller coaster games, Chicago’s final showdown of the weekend was more of a seesaw affair. The first inning was true to form, as leadoff man first-year infielder Dan Eckler came around for the Cougars without the benefit of a hit. First-year right fielder Travis Blane (three-for-four, RBI) got it back in the bottom of that inning for Chicago with an RBI single to set the tone for the rest of the way. The visitors hurt Ginsberg for one in the second, but the Maroons tied it back up in the third and put themselves up for good on a two-run Cozzi (one-for-three, three RBI) double to right center in the fourth.

Upping his team’s lead to 6–2, Cozzi scored on a wild pitch in the fourth and earned himself another RBI in the fifth on a ground out to the mound that scored Blane. The insurance would prove a solid investment, as Ginsberg and Leonhardt combined to concede three runs in the sixth before Hofer picked a man off second to end the bleeding. The Cougars couldn’t finish the comeback in the seventh, failing to score despite putting two men on.

“At the beginning of the season, we saw ourselves playing for a run in a lot of games, and I still think that as a team it is important to do that. If we are able to play for a run in every inning, we are going to be able to win the close games as we did on Sunday,” second-year left fielder Serio said.

Surrendering five runs, all earned over three and one third, first-year starter Joe Kerke was tagged with the loss. Ginsberg was credited for all five of the Concordia runs, with four of them earned, on five hits and seven walks over five and a third. Leonhardt became the third pitcher to earn a save this spring for Chicago, pitching one and two-thirds scoreless while giving up just one hit.

“The only reason we didn’t get four wins is that we walked too many people. We paid for that with one game, and we’re probably kind of fortunate we didn’t have to pay for it more,” Baldea said.

At one game above .500 with three left to play, the Maroons are looking for a little bit better than a winning season. The team hopes to win out, starting with what should be a total group effort against North Central (12–26) at Naperville Wednesday. As many as five pitchers could get work for Chicago coming off a double-double weekend, with the starter still to be determined. The South Siders recorded a 10–6 triumph in the first half of the home-and-home March 31.