MORRIS – Sometimes, it might not seem like it to a baseball player, but there’s a reason why coaches put players through drills that might seem boring. It’s so that those actions become second nature when they have to be executed on the field.
One such play was a pivotal moment in Morris’ 2-1 win over Ottawa in the semifinals of the Class 3A Morris Regional on Wednesday.
The Redskins led, 2-1, after five innings, and replaced starting pitcher Nick Evola with sophomore Matt Walker in the top of the sixth. Ottawa’s Jake Less led off with a double to left, giving the Pirates a prime scoring chance.
The next batter, Trent Porter, bunted through Walker’s first offering and as he had done countless times before, Morris catcher Geno Persico threw to second. Less had gotten off to a big lead and with the ground still wet from the rain that plagued the first few innings, he slipped on his way back to second. Shortstop Trevor Lines caught Persico’s on-the-money throw and chased after Less, who bolted for third. Lines threw to Tim Smyk at third, who returned Lines’ throw to tag Less returning to second for the first out of the inning. Porter followed with a single that might have scored Less had he remained on second.
“That’s just automatic to throw to second after a guy misses a bunt,” Persico said. “It was nice that he slipped, but it’s second nature to me to throw it down there.”
“That was a huge, heads-up play by Geno,” Morris coach Todd Kein said. “We try to throw behind the runner in that situation and get a shot at an out and that worked out for us. Those are the types of plays you need this time of year.”
With the win, Morris advances to Saturday’s 10 a.m. title game against the winner of Thursday’s Coal City-LaSalle-Peru game at 4:30 p.m.
The sixth inning wasn’t the only jam that the Redskins worked their way out of. Evola stranded 10 runners in his five innings of work, allowing just an unearned run on three hits and striking out seven. In the first, Ottawa had runners on first and second with one out and he struck out the next two. He sailed through the second with two strikeouts before leaving the bases loaded in the third, two runners on in the fourth and loaded again in the fifth.
“It really gives us a lift when Nick can do that,” Persico said. “He’s been doing it all year.”
To Evola, who upped his record to 9-3, it was another day at the office.
“I got myself out of a lot of jams,” he said. “It was raining quite a bit for a while, but I just dried my fingers on my pants and it was fine. Only a couple really got away from me. With the way our defense plays, they are like a brick wall. I know I can be a contact pitcher and let my defense make the plays.”
And the offense for the Redskins (27-9) did just enough. In the bottom of the first, Austin Conrod doubled to right-center, then came home on a grounder to second by Trevor Lines when the throw from the second baseman sailed over the first baseman’s head and into the Ottawa dugout. Morris scored its other run in the fourth. With one out, Smyk doubled down the third-base line and went to third on a single by Tyler Bordner. Matt Bernickus followed with a sacrifice fly to center. Another single, this one by Grant Schluntz, put runners on first and second and Persico was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Kyle Hill hit into a force play to end the inning, however.
“With the wet ground, we wanted to put the ball in play hard and on the ground and make them make plays,” Kein said. “We did that often enough that it got the job done.
“Nick Evola is well-accustomed to pitching out of tight situations. He did a great job of putting us in a position to win. He had thrown right at 100 pitches through the fifth, so we didn’t want the top of their order to see him again. We brought Matt in, and we have all the confidence in the world in him. He did a good job.”