Russell Snapp would be the first to admit that he wasn’t sharp on the mound Tuesday as Evanston’s baseball team opened Central Suburban League play.
But the senior right-hander maintained a belief in his best pitch — his slider — right up to the end.
With the potential tying run at second base, Snapp retired the side by pitching six straight sliders to secure a 4-3 victory over visiting Highland Park.
Evanston’s ace improved his own record to 5-0 this spring despite surrendering a season-high 9 hits. All three runs were unearned against the righty, who has only yielded one earned run in 22 innings to date.
With Highland Park’s Justin Mills perched at second following a single and a successful sacrifice bunt in the seventh, Snapp struck out cleanup hitter Sam Nevers on three pitches and forced Justin Halpern to tap a weak grounder to first base to end the game.
“I always throw that slider to the 2-3-4-5 hitters in the lineup because it’s so hard to hit,” Snapp said. “But I have to remember to use it on the bottom half of the lineup, too. Those guys are in there for a reason and I gave them too many good pitches on 0-2 counts. They were mostly fastballs over the white (part of the plate). I definitely have to work more on painting the corners and attacking the bottom of the order better.
“Last year I used my slider mostly as a putaway (strikeout) pitch. Now I’ve got the confidence to throw it early in the count against good hitters. That helps get me ahead in the count, and it always helps to be ahead.”
With Snapp at less than his best, the Wildkits still found a way to win. They pushed across all four runs in the fourth inning and improved to 10-2-1 on the season, one of the best starts by the program in the past 30 years.
A two-run, two-out single up the middle by James Allen climaxed that fourth inning rally following consecutive hits by Tyler McHolland, Sam Evans and Justin Farrow to start the uprising against Highland Park hurler Dan Wagner.
The victory was a welcome home gift for ETHS head coach Frank Consiglio, who missed out on the team’s annual spring break trip to Florida last week due to the birth of his daughter Gia Elizabeth. The Wildkits won 6 of 7 games on the trip but, just as important, Consiglio didn’t get to see a squad that’s replacing 7 starters from last year in person to help him evaluate just what this year’s team might be capable of.
Now the veteran coach has a better handle on a team that entered Tuesday’s contest with a surprising .343 team batting average — surprising for a team that figured to lean heavily on a veteran pitching staff instead of the offense.
“I like the fact that this was a one-run game today, because you have to be in one-run games to get a feel for your team,” Consiglio said. “One of the things I have an understanding of now is which guys won’t get themselves out or put themselves in bad situations by swinging at the pitcher’s pitch. And I learned a lot today about which 4 or 5 guys can play small ball, and who can execute. I’m surprised by how well we’re playing offensively. We still have a lot of little things to work on, but this is a team that keeps working and keeps pushing forward every day.
“Russell was just OK today, but he threw so many sliders in a row at the end there that the hitters had no chance. He really just had two bad innings and the rest were really efficient as far as his pitch count went. He just missed a lot on 0-2, when usually he can locate his pitches any time he wants to.”
Snapp wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, but in the fourth the Giants (1-6) broke through for a pair of runs. Halpern singled to start the rally, and all hands were safe when catcher Sam Evans’ throw pulled shortstop Charlie Maxwell off the bag at second on an attempted sacrifice bunt.
Ryan Kane’s squeeze bunt produced the first run and the No. 9 hitter in the Highland Park order, Benji Rubin, lined a 2-2 pitch up the middle for an RBI single before Snapp managed to work out of trouble.
Evanston answered in the home half of the fourth. Designated hitter McHolland pounded a double to right and came around on singles by Evans and Farrow. Ben Drake’s squeeze bunt knotted the score, and two outs later Allen grounded a single up the middle that glanced off the glove of Giants’ second baseman Rubin.
Snapp knows the pressure will be on the pitching staff to keep the Kits in contention in the Central Suburban League South division, especially now that an elbow problem has sidelined the team’s No. 2 pitcher — junior Dylan Mulvihill — for the rest of the season.
But the senior believes others will step up to fill that void.
“Dylan was a huge loss for us. That was a big blow,” said Snapp, who will pitch next year at Division III Occidental College in California. “But what I’m seeing is our other pitchers stepping up and working on their games.
“(Senior) James Allen has given us awesome leadership and he’s doing well so far (2-1 record, 1.75 earned run average) as a starter. He’s a great presence for us as an athlete and as a leader. This is a whole new team this year and I think that Florida trip was really awesome for us as far as team building goes. Right now I feel like we have great team chemistry, maybe even better than last year.”