Owen Brooks faced seven different New Trier hitters at the end of Tuesday’s Central Suburban League South division showdown in Winnetka.
None of them got a good swing against the Evanston right-hander, and that’s how you identify just who a team’s closer is.
Taking over a role that many high school baseball programs don’t even have, the sidewinding senior tossed shutout ball over the final 1 2/3 innings and preserved a 2-1 Wildkit win.
Brooks and starter Hank Liss combined to tame New Trier with a four-hitter, as ETHS improved to 10-2 overall and 2-0 in conference play. Evanston chalked up its seventh consecutive victory and dropped the struggling Trevians to 4-9 on the year.
The two teams will meet again in a rematch Thursday at Evanston and you couldn’t blame the Trevians if they feel like they’ve already seen enough of Brooks’ unusual arm angle. The senior righty also earned a save over New Trier this past summer and has blossomed in situations with the game on the line despite his lack of mound experience.
Brooks only pitched a handful of varsity innings as a junior – none as a closer – and has only recently transitioned from a catcher who wasn’t much of a hitter, by his own admission, into a stopper on the mound.
He’s certainly already earned the trust of veteran head coach Frank Consiglio when it comes to handing someone the ball in high-leverage situations.
“There’s no doubt that Owen is our closer,” said Consiglio. “He’s so efficient and he bounces back so well that we can pitch him two or three times a week if we need to. He’s the ideal guy to have in that closer role, and I think he and Hank particularly play well off of each other. Hank throws harder, and when we bring Owen in after him his ball moves differently. They’re nothing alike.
“We saw a lot of good signs from Owen last year against live hitters even though he didn’t pitch much in games. He’s a kid who will compete, and we can run him out there for three innings at a time if necessary. He’s as mentally tough as any kid I’ve had here in quite awhile, and he wants the ball in the biggest situations.”
Brooks realized prior to his sophomore season that he might not ever get off the bench if he didn’t make some changes.
“I was a catcher-outfielder and I wasn’t a great hitter,” he confessed. “So I realized that if I wanted to get a chance to play at a higher level, that maybe I should try pitching. We didn’t have a season [due to the pandemic shutdown] that year and it was a blessing in disguise for me. I’d always had a lower release point [on his throws], and I just started messing around with it. I was able to work a lot on the basics and learn the technique.
“I went to a pitching coach who had worked with other guys like me and just went with it. I just kinda stumbled into it. And we have so much talent on the mound here that they didn’t need a guy who would eat up a lot of innings [as a starter]. They just needed a guy who would give the hitters a different look – I have softer stuff than guys like Hank and Jared Lortie, and out of a different arm slot – so I fell into the closer role.
“It feels great to get this one today. I’ve always dreamt of closing out New Trier some day. I did it once in the summer, but it’s not as good as this one. This one is super sweet.”
Tuesday, Brooks inherited a first and second, one-out situation in a one-run game after Liss faltered with a walk and a hit batsman. The closer struck out two of the next three Trevians to retire the side, and didn’t allow a ball hit out of the infield in the seventh to slam the door shut on the hosts.
Evanston scratched out single runs against New Trier hurler Dalton Hastings in the second and third, and that proved to be just enough offense as Hastings and Liss took turns conducting a pitching clinic when it came to locating their fastballs and off-speed stuff. The winners only totaled four hits, including singles by Liss, Ben Gutowski and Heath Ballard, plus a double by Eron Vega.
Vega lined a double down the left field line to lead off the second, moved to third on a bunt and scored on Ballard’s two-out single.
Gutowski beat out a swinging bunt with one out in the third and was erased when Alex Vasquez bounced into a forceout. But Hastings air-mailed a pickoff throw past the bag, allowing Vasquez to scamper all the way to third, and then the New Trier righty tossed a wild pitch to account for what turned out to be the winning run.
Liss’ wild pitch after back-to-back singles by Louis Florida and Graham Mastros, combined with a sacrifice bunt, got New Trier on the board in the bottom of the second. The hard-throwing ETHS junior caught a break just before that run-scoring wild heave when he unleashed a throw to the backstop, but catcher Brandon Brokowski retrieved it in time to retire Florida attempting to score.
Liss settled in after that mishap and finished with nine strikeouts. He mowed down eight Trevians in a row after yielding a fly ball single to Dylan Mayer in the New Trier third.