Hank Liss didn’t have to worry too much about building trust when he joined Evanston’s varsity baseball squad as a sophomore last spring.
He wasn’t the staff pitching ace yet and expectations weren’t too high. He also knew his brother Joe, a senior third baseman, and Joe’s buddies had his back.
But the turnover in the ETHS roster featured new faces on defense this year – and Liss’ struggles in the first inning of most of his pitching starts could be traced directly to trying to build trust with his teammates.
It’s a process, of course, but the junior right-hander and the rest of the Wildkits were certainly on the same page Saturday at Wintrust Field in Schaumburg.
Backed by 10 outfield put outs, Liss tossed six shutout innings and Evanston blanked Marist 6-0 for its fourth win in a row. The Wildkits improved to 7-2 on the season on the neutral field turf of the Schaumburg Boomers home field.
Outfielders Ben Gutowski, Sam Sheikh and Addison Blough chased down everything the RedHawks hit with Liss on the mound, and Gutowski added to the season highlight film with reliever Mason Denlow mopping up in the seventh inning as he robbed Marist’s Colin Jennings of an extra base hit with a leaping grab in deep center.
“I just told Hank that was one of the best games I’ve seen him pitch,” said Evanston head coach Frank Consiglio. “Those balls they hit against him weren’t line drives, they were hit in the air because of [Liss’] velocity and his location. We want to pitch to contact like that. The worst thing you can do as a pitcher in cold weather baseball is to get to ball four and get into deep counts. I like how efficient he was today. That’s what stands out to me.”
Liss struck out six before reaching his pitch limit for the week. He allowed just two hits, singles by Mitch Potocsnak in the third and Cal Sefcik in the fourth, and walked one. Liss retired the last nine Marist hitters he faced and Denlow allowed a harmless single while fanning two in the seventh.
Evanston benefited from eight walks issued by four Marist pitchers despite mustering just four hits. Blough, the No. 8 hitter in the ETHS batting order, broke the game open with a bases-loaded single as part of a three-run uprising in the fourth with Evanston already on top 2-0.
“My warmup is the same and so is my pregame music,” Liss said when asked if his game preparation had changed after the early inning struggles prior to Saturday. “In the first few games, I just wasn’t so confident in the guys who were behind me [on defense]. But I sat down and talked with some of them and now we trust each other a lot more.
“I put more trust in them and that’s what’s different. I know they’re going to track balls down [in the outfield] and make the plays in the infield. They’re fast, they’re athletic and they get good reads on the ball.”
A scout behind home plate posted radar gun readings in the upper 80s for the hard-throwing right-hander, but part of Liss’ maturation as a pitcher is the realization that speed isn’t everything. He may be a professional prospect by the time he graduates high school if he adds a few ticks to those radar gun readings, but winning games for the Wildkits is his priority right now. And that means getting his teammates involved on defense.
“I wanted to get as many miles an hour as possible when I was younger, I wanted to strike everyone out,” Liss said. “But what gets people out is hitting your spots, locating pitches and making batters uncomfortable up there. Location is really the key, being able to pound them inside and out.
“Right now, I like where I’m at on the mound.”
Liss helped the Wildkits jump out to an early lead when he pounded a leadoff triple. Courtesy runner Macis Hansen scored standing up when the next hitter, Gutowski, grounded out to first.
A pair of walks in the third issued by Marist lefty Frank Bilecki led to a two-out RBI opportunity for Brandon Brokowski, and the ETHS cleanup hitter delivered a line single to left that plated Charlie Kalil with the second run.
Evanston loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth on an outfield error and singles by Sheikh and Heath Ballard. Blough pounced on the first pitch from Marist reliever Sam Gurgone, lining the ball to right center to boost the advantage to 4-0. Ballard later scored on a wild pitch.
The Wildkits tacked on another unearned run in the seventh when the RedHawks threw away a double play chance after Liss had drawn a leadoff walk to start the uprising.
“We did a lot right today. We defended very well, we played little ball, we played big ball and we competed well on the mound,” Consiglio said. “It’s nice to come out and compete like this and play Evanston baseball in a highlight game like this.
“We are thankful as a program that we can play in highlight games like this, but we haven’t played any home games yet, and if you give this bunch a choice, they’d all say they’d rather play at home. But when you do get challenged in a highlight game like this, it builds your character.
“This is where you go to play the super-sectional, so hopefully that means the moment isn’t going to be too big for you – if you get back here.”